A page, a paragraph, a sentence: keeping your focus
I participated in several intensive writing courses while becoming a writer and I’ve always been a great believer in the benefits of the immersive experience. Apart from the sustained focus on my writing, I loved working closely with the course leaders — novelists, short-story writers, poets and memoirists. Sometimes they showed me things I was doing already. This was reassuring — I’m doing the right thing, I’d think. I just need to keep going. Sometimes they showed me something completely new. Each time, I came away fizzing with purpose. Of course, the creative high couldn’t last, but one of the most beneficial things I took home with me each time was how to achieve an aerial view of my project — an overview of what I am trying to say.
I’m in the process of setting up my first immersive writing workshop. My participants will be fourth-year undergraduates about to embark on their dissertations. I’m going to show them a useful way to achieve that aerial view. It involves taking a break from writing and researching, and producing a synopsis as if you were telling a story — a summary of what will happen. The approach is helpful for other forms of writing too. This is how it works:
Participants take a blank piece of paper. ‘What is your dissertation about?’ I ask. ‘What is the answer to the question you’re asking?’ First, I suggest that they scribble it down on a blank page — roughly 300 words. The first draft is written quickly, and by hand. Then, on a separate page, they summarise what they’ve written in a paragraph of up to 150 words. I emphasise that the important thing is to distil rather than simply extract. So they aren’t just cutting, they are re-thinking, re-working, re-wording. Finally, they produce a summary in a sentence — no more than 25 words. This is the essence of the dissertation.
In each instance, when they finish a draft, they slow down. They edit what they’ve written. Then they read it out loud. The aim is to produce something that is coherent and complete, although brief. This approach helps you to stay on track and remained focused on the topic. I still do this exercise in my own work. I find it boosts my confidence, whatever I’m working on. It puts me back on track if I’m flagging. It’s a way of telling yourself you can do it, and then explaining how it’ll be done.