When Good Ideas Go Splat: How to Drive Decision-Making in Writing

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By Christina Folz

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." –John Muir

Folz, ChristinaHere’s the problem: When I sit down to write, I become overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities available to me. Even if I have a narrow topic in mind, there seems to be no limit to the number of options I have for 1) leading into the topic; 2) developing it; 3) creating a unique tone and angle; 4) branching out into other interesting areas; 5) providing practical advice; and 6) wrapping it all up.

Heck, there doesn’t even seem to be a limit to the numbers I can put on that list. Six is enough, I tell myself. Just stop. I’ve had about half a dozen ideas for how I could start this post. The one I chose is nothing special, but I’m plowing ahead in the interest of illustrating the nature of this problem — and how to get beyond it.

Writers strive to make vital and surprising connections. There’s nothing more satisfying to me as a reader than when a writer creates a bridge for me to walk across. It may connect personal reflections about the writer’s ailing parent to a larger insight about the contradictions of familial love; an account of the wastefulness of Keurig coffee makers on global warming; a fictional story about a conflicted Dane’s deeper truths about desire and revenge. And let’s just stop there. (“Cut!” as a Hollywood director would say.)

I know that writers must make choices, but I often don’t feel capable of that. I want to write about five things at once and can’t make up my mind. Nothing gets done as a result — or I create an unwieldy draft that follows a zillion tangents and thus has no direction of its own. Over the years, I have come to refer to this as the “splat” problem. I picture something — or someone — that is splattered all over the ground after falling from a great height, the object (or person) no longer recognizable because there are too many things layered on top of one another. Splat.

In life, once something splatters everywhere, it’s generally over; you can’t unbreak an egg. But with writing, there’s always a way to organize the messy thoughts splattered across your brain or the page. Some ideas:

Work on voice. I’m convinced that “splat” happens most to people (like me) who struggle with finding their voice and point of view. Do you see all sides of every issue? Want to please everyone? Do you tend to be a passive decision maker?

Often, my thought process is that I’ll just keep floating along, doing my thing … and then a miracle will happen and I will stride confidently onto the page and start making decisions. But miracles don’t happen unless we make them happen. As you practice, force yourself to be present in the story you’re telling. Keep a journal where you feel safe being yourself. Most important, just start writing.

Embrace the chaos. I have a science background, and a big part of my brain craves logical order — you come up with a hypothesis first, test it, and then you get your result. Of course, there’s a rational structure behind good writing too — beginning, middle, and end. But the process itself is frequently nonlinear. You might start with the end or find that the beginning comes to you somewhere in the middle. Be open to scrapping everything and starting over. Most important, just start writing.

Visualize where you want to go. You can’t know everything about a journey before you take it, but it helps to have a roadmap. Going back to the “bridge” idea, decide at the outset which connection you want to make — between what and what — and use that as your general organizing principle.

Write in scraps. My internal editor is harsh; she only lets the playful, creative writer in me come out in short bursts before she gets bitchy and intrusive. So I write in fragments, often in the morning. Since I work as an editor, I am far more comfortable shaping existing text than I am writing new content. So I just keep an open file with random scraps of writing until the editor has enough to work with.

Keep perfectionism in check. Everything I plan to write is flawless. The problem starts when I actually begin; there’s a “splat” between fantasy and reality. Picking a direction and moving on means admitting that I’m not perfect and neither is anything I write. Choose reality — and start writing; be about right rather than exactly wrong.

There is no perfect solution or perfect ending. It’s time to just stop. And just start.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine at the Society for Human Resource Management and member of the AM&Pcontent creation committee.