Nerdy Writing Info For Nerdy Writing Enthusiasts

For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to pay attention to how other people write. And I’m not talking about their writing style; I’m talking about their writing process. I had never really thought much about it until I started my second book, probably because I was so overwhelmed when I wrote the first book that any sort of “system” was out of the question. I had a chapter outline from my book proposal, and that was great, but the adjustment from writing blog posts to writing chapters was significant enough that all I could do was focus on trying to get the words out of my head and into the computer.

So with the second book, I felt a little more confident in my ability to write chapters, and I started to wonder if there was a way to be more organized with how to tackle the book. I still had a chapter outline (which is mainly for a publisher…it’s just a list of chapter titles, and each title is followed by a paragraph that briefly explains the content), but I never could settle on a way to break down those individual chapters or “road map” them before I actually started writing. All of you super-organized people will find this absolutely horrifying, but when it was time to start a new chapter, I would just sit down and start the chapter. I didn’t plan it ahead of time other than knowing the general topic, though I did have certain stories I wanted to tell (well, for the most part). My saving grace with that approach was that I am a compulsive editor, so after I’d get 3500 or 4000 initial words for a chapter, I’d go back through those all of those words 10 or 15 times and edit like crazy before I would ever send the chapter to my editor.

Is this super boring? I am so sorry. This is the kind of stuff I can talk about for a lot of hours before I realize NOBODY CARES, so I’ll try to pep it up a little bit.

Anyway, I actually enjoy the compulsive editing approach, but it is super time-consuming, and since writer’s block seemed to hit more frequently with the second book, I felt like I wasted a lot of time. When I’d stare at the computer screen and wait for some words to show up, I’d think a lot about how maybe it would be easier if I took the time to break down the chapters, but then I’d remember that I didn’t know how to do that in a loose enough way for my ramble-y writing style (I don’t like the feeling of being hemmed in by a bunch of rigid structure, and the fact that I even typed that out just now means that I’m going to have to finish this post in a hurry so that I can go sit in front of a mirror and make fun of myself).

(GAH.)

(NERD MUCH?)

So. I started wondering what other people do when they’re writing books, and I felt like if I read and listened enough, I might pick up some good tips. (And that reminds me: recently I listened to Annie’s podcast with Shauna Niequist, and that is a fascinating 40 minutes of writing and publishing talk. Just an FYI if you’re into that sort of thing, which, by the way, I TOTALLY AM.)

Well.

I did a chapter outline for the third book, too, but after I wrote the intro, I decided I was going to try to add a tiny bit more structure to writing the chapters. This was mainly because I’ve never written an exegetical analysis of the book of Job, and I felt like I needed to be really organized before I got started.

See? I am a joker who likes to joke.

And in all seriousness, this new book really is a little different even though Job is nowhere to be found. It still has a lot of stories, but then it has another layer of stuff going on (I know that is vague, but vague is about the best I can do right now). I want the two layers to feel balanced and clear and whathaveyou, so one afternoon I pulled out a small sheet of poster board and a stack of post-it notes – and then I made myself sit and think through the first chapter until I’d figured out somewhere between 12 and 15 big ideas / stories I wanted to make sure to cover. I didn’t know if it would really and truly help when I started writing the chapter or not, but I told myself it couldn’t hurt to try.

So I wrote the first chapter – and between my chapter outline and my post-it notes, the writing was so much more fun. Oh my goodness. Those post-its gave me somewhere to go when I’d start to feel stuck, and while I still edited the fire out of the stuff that I wrote, it was so much easier to get through that initial first draft.

I know that other people use some variation of this post-it note system; it’s almost like coming up with plot points (except that I’m not writing fiction, but you know what I mean). But as someone who has struggled a lot with “start and stop” writing – I write for a little while, then don’t know where to go, then stop for a while, then fight with the paragraph a little longer, then stop again, etc. – the post-it map keeps me moving. I also feel like my first drafts are a little better, but I guess my editor will ultimately be the judge of that.

Here’s what the post-it map for chapter 3 looks like.

IMG_4403

I know it’s hard to see – you can blame yours truly for the sub-par picture quality – but it’s for a chapter called “I Do Not Understand You & Your Tricky Side Buns.” It took me most of an afternoon to get this figured out (and there may be parts that I don’t use in the end or that I move to other chapters – or I may change my mind about something as I write), but it’s totally worth it (I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “Um, YEAH,” but I am a slow learner when it comes to these things). The writing has been so much less frustrating and angst-y because I’m not forever thinking, “Okay. What next? WHAAAAAAAT NEXXXXXXXXXT?” To be so simple, the post-it map makes a world of difference.

So there you have it. Congratulations if you’ve made it this far in the post; I should probably send out prizes for the folks who made it to the end. But since I’m not super methodical and this particular method is working for me, I thought it might be helpful for a few of y’all who love to write but struggle (like I do) when it comes to making the most of your writing time. Plus, I start back to work soon, so I’m really excited about having something tangible to look at and say, “Okay. Where was I?” when I’m trying to get back into writing mode on the weekends. I am organizationally challenged in every single area of my life, so it’s delightful to not feel quite so scattered with the book stuff. I’m just as tickled as I can be.

Nerd it up, my friends. NERD IT UP.

Love,
Me

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Comments

  1. From one nerd writer to another, thank you! Outlining makes my heart sing, and my fingers type!

  2. Your new book has a chapter called “I Do Not Understand You & Your Tricky Side Buns”??? Oh come on! How are we supposed to wait for all the days and months and weeks and whatnot to pass until we get to read this? You better believe I used all my best nerd skills (which are not impressive) to try and enlarge that picture of your chapter map for more details but the words only became fuzzy as they grew larger. Oh well…anticipation. At least you have a more efficient, enjoyable system this time. That should help move things along!

    • Katie C. says:

      I sure did right click and save that sucker in the hopes of enlarging it and reading all the post-its. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one!

  3. me too… Stacey, me too…

  4. Loved it! All the nerdy writing stuff makes me smile. Looking forward to the next book…although it is apparently going to require a considerable amount of patience because…a whole chapter on side burns…I can’t even!

  5. Kate Semer says:

    Your idea is solid for any project, much like a punch list, but using sticky notes helps one to move the sequence easier. For instance I have to stain a building, but it needs holes caulked, and windows caulked and holes patched, and so on. I have been struggling with where to start, and this post gave me the epiphany I needed! I will use this method a lot, a lot, so thanks for sharing.

  6. This is just the right mix of nerdy/visual to get my writing going! I hated doing outlines for my writing classes in college but the post-it/poster board method is perfect!! Thank you and I can’t wait to read your next book!!

  7. Kim Stewart says:

    This nerd girl LOVES this post! Thank you so much for sharing all these nuggets I’m always wondering about. Can’t wait to check out Annie’s podcast too. Have a great day!

  8. Perfect timing! I have a 16 year old son who despises writing. I think this could really help him organize his thoughts and make writing less of a chore. Color coordinating the notes could help separate the paragraphs. Sophie, you may have just helped me solve a HUGE problem! Thank you!!!

  9. I have found that the Mac Store app Scrivener is an awesome tool for my writing. I write fiction, so I especially love that it has a cork board for my characters. It has a digital post-it note board too and keeps everything organized. Since I have a habit of coming up with huge family trees and back stories, I also started a family tree on Mac Family Tree for my characters so I can keep things straight.

  10. So is this chapter going to be about our other favorite blogger — she who did a video tutorial on how to do a side bun???

  11. Kelly H. says:

    Among other reasons, the fact that you basically just write about whatever is currently on your mind is why I just love your blog. No ads, no sponsored thingy-ma-jigs. I will always come back here for your nerdi-ness because it’s genuine and I love people’s quirks!

  12. This SO reminds me of when I was studying for my masters degree comps at JSU. You study and study and then still feel unprepared. So, one afternoon, I went out to the local Piggly Wiggly and came home with posterboards. I wrote all of my outlines on individual posters and taped them all over our TINY first apartment. My logic was that if I saw these outlines, just a passing glance, that I’d read them- because you read involuntarily a lot of times. The walls were COVERED.
    My husband came home and thought I’d lost it. We still giggle about it.
    And I passed with flying colors :)

  13. I always wrote my papers, then the outline, then the massive clean-up. Fast forward to now, freshman-in- high school son, dislikes writing, and new core curriculum standards, emphasis on writing, don’t get me started on why teachers can’t just teach, that is what they DO! Sorry. Nerd away. I love this stuff. I love the new approach and we will be trying it out and adding to the repertoire.

  14. Well. I guess a kick in the head should be noted, right? I’ve been dealing with a novel running around in my head for quite some time. I just never could figure out how to get it out in an organized fashion. Post it notes. Huh. Who knew?

    I’ll let you know if it works and if/when it gets published, I’ll give you a shout out in the Acknowledgements. (I’m sure you’ll be waiting with baited breath for that!)

  15. I so can’t relate to all you people writing or aspiring to write books. Just tie me up on top of a red ant hill. That would be more pleasurable to me.

  16. Nerd or not I loved this post. I’m not a writer or even an aspiring one but I do love to read about the process. I’m a reader,so I need you to write and you need me to read. Fair exchange I think. I’ve enjoyed your first two books so much. Looking forward to this one too. Keep up the Nerd work.

  17. I love this! Kim Stewart posted it in a group and I had to hop over to see all about it. Some of were not born with the Type-A gene and so I love reading about how others approach writing (or stacking the dishwasher or color coding their kids). Thanks for sharing!

  18. Sherri Len says:

    I made it to the end – where’s my prize? Oh, yeah, I just read it: Home Is Where My People Are! Loved it more than your first book, if that’s possible. Thanks, Sophie!

    Also, I’ve always wanted to write a book, my life-long friends tell me that I should, and I’m super-organized, but….I have creative issues & just don’t know where to start….any advice on that?

    And, lastly, is Chapter 3 about BigMama? hehehe!

  19. My life revolves around post it notes!! Prayer requests, groceries, to do, packing for a trip…you name, post it solves it! So glad you are enjoying writing your third book.

  20. Actually, this post was seriously helpful!

  21. Talk Nerdy (writing) to me any time! Makes my heart race! Definitely a much tidier version than my paper explosion and random piles. Also, I’m very proud of you for embracing the structure. That’s very grown-up of you. :-)

  22. Don’t sell yourself short…this post was AWESOME! I read the whole thing! I love learning how the writing process works for others.

  23. I enjoyed this post immensely!! Nerds Unite!!

  24. Becky in Waxahachie says:

    I’ve been told by friends with whom I email that I should write a book just because they love my style of writing. But, I have no idea how to even begin. First I would need a laptop. I do all my emails on an iPad or my cell phone. I think my thumbs would fall off and I would need a lot more steroid injections for my carpal tunnel syndrome. But, you have made me wonder if using your method, which I’m dubbing the Nerd method, to start thinking seriously about writing at least an autobiography for my kids and ongoing generations. I will be saving your post for review. Thanks for putting it all down on “paper”.

  25. Keep on NERDING, Sophie. :)
    I sincerely loved this post and am fascinated with the writing process!

  26. I loved this post so much! Knowing I am wading into my book writing process, my mother sent me this writer-nerdy link. I mean, I love your blog, I just hadn’t seen it yet…in my list of blogs I want to grab a bag of cookies and read. So I’m super glad momma sent it to me. You see, I was about to start out in my standard “just write something” style. Now, I am gonna “just write some outline” ideas first! Keep typing!