How to Stop Fiddling Around and Start Writing

A friend recently asked me about my writing practices – in particular, how do I keep track of notes as I am preparing to write? This allows me to make a recommendation that I hope you won’t find too peculiar: When writing, don’t take notes. Don’t make outlines. Just write.

Let me clarify. What I recommend, and try to practice myself, is wasting as little time as possible in the writing process. With all due regard to our personal dispositions as authors, I suspect that far too many writers and professors expend too much effort on the background to writing, and too little on the writing itself. It is best to put as small a gap as possible between your research and the actual writing.

Let me give you a practical example. I am currently writing a chapter in a book on colonial America that I am contracted to write for Yale University Press. (This while I am waiting on the next steps in the Whitefield biography production process.) The chapter is on early Virginia. Yes, I am writing this chapter as an expert in the history of colonial America, but not someone who has mastered the details of seventeenth-century Virginia (that is, I have never written a book or article specifically on that place or time). I do know enough to have a basic outline in my head of the beginning and end of the chapter – roughly the Roanoke Island (the “Lost Colony”) to Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s.

My first step is to start reading up-to-date books and articles on colonial Virginia, to prime the pump for the narrative. These lead me to intriguing primary sources from the time period, especially ones that touch on religious topics (religion, unsurprisingly, is the primary topical thread of the book). I end up with stacks of books around me, and many tabs open on Chrome. I lock my computer at the end of the day, rather than closing those tabs!

As I read the sources, I find that they invariably prompt me when to start the next topic and paragraph, and the writing continues somewhat organically as I move through topics which interest me. Little note-taking is required, although I do sometimes leave notes and links at the end of the Word document regarding things I may need later. (For instance, I found a great quote on tobacco from a book written in the 1580s – the book is happily available in Google Books – and I put the link at the end of the document, where I returned today when I got to the “turn to tobacco” in Virginia in 1616.) 

I personally would find it extremely inefficient to take a bunch of notes and then go back weeks or months later to write up those notes in chapter form. My memory is just not that good, so it is much easier to, in effect, combine writing and note-taking. This necessarily means that I will have to edit extensively, and move stuff around, but won’t I have to do that anyway? Similarly, I find extensive outlining to be useless, since I rarely know exactly what I am going to cover, and when, until I am actually writing.

There are cases when I do want to capture things from books, articles, the internet, etc. that I am not going to use right away, but could come in handy later. These I generally either put in “My Library” in Google Books, or save in the free Evernote app (which I also use for saving sources when writing WORLD Magazine articles). The scenario in which I probably take the most extensive notes is when I visit archives where (grrrr) you are not allowed to take digital photos or make photocopies. This happened when I was at the British Library last May, and I needed to take lengthy notes in a Word document on an unpublished George Whitefield diary. In such a case, I don’t know what else to do but take notes and integrate them into your manuscript as soon as you can.

Above all, get to writing quickly – you’ll always need to edit and modify later, but if you don’t go ahead and write, you’ll have nothing to edit. Or maybe even to publish.

What suggestions do you readers have for the writing process? This post will definitely be better with comments.

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  • Thomas Kidd

    At Facebook, a couple of friends commented that one of their main challenges is setting aside long blocks of time to write. I replied that I agree re: blocks of time, although I also find that realistically I only write in blocks of about 40 minutes before I need a short break – so for me, the question is also whether I am writing consistently enough so that I know where to pick up quickly when I get back to it.

    • theriddles

      this is interesting. Can you say more about this “blocks” concept? I find that ‘emotional energy’ is the primary requirement for writing and that if you do it in huge chunks you can burn out and need a big reboot, but conversely if you do too sparsely you never get momentum.

  • Nathan Finn

    Tommy: I follow exactly the same writing procedure as you do. Seriously. I would think you had been looking over my shoulder, except you are the one who is productive. I have individual moments of productivity in a sea of distraction. So, upon further consideration, I think I’ll go cry myself to sleep now . . .

    • Thomas Kidd

      no crying! encouragement only!

    • Miles Mullin

      Tommy’s efficiency always makes me cry. ;)

  • Miles Mullin

    Thanks, Tommy. I do some of this (put notes at end of document), but otherwise take too many notes/outlines. I wonder, do you ever write things out by hand (a la Joseph Ellis) or is it all typing?

    • Thomas Kidd

      Miles, it is all typing (unless, I suppose, I was at an archive that even forbade the use of a laptop)

  • Richard Pierard

    Tommy, The last time I was at the British Library I found they have a service you might find useful. I was working in the India Office and wanted to copy some pages from the Calcutta police ledger (pre-1813) about the arrival of some unauthorized and unwanted missionaries. They would copy them on a CD and send to it me at home. I paid for it with a credit card, about $45, and voila!, a few weeks later it showed up in my mailbox. As for outlines, I don’t use them much, but I must confess that I used to make them in church bulletins. But now I belong to a church where the minister has something to say and I abandoned that practice–which my wife disliked anyway.