Catch Them Bones

This is something a little bit different. Because I write for a living (so you don’t have to), many people often ask me for writing advice. So I may from time to time share some general ideas from my vast experience and *brilliant insights* into that particular topic. I’ma do that today…

When people struggle with their writing, one of the most common troubles I hear about is how hard it is to get all your thoughts together. You sit down and begin to write, and things just won’t “gel” for you. If this happens to you, it’s not because your thoughts are no good. (Well, maybe that’s why. But probably not.) If you can’t organize your thoughts on paper, it’s most likely because you haven’t first organized them in your mind.

Many people fantasize that there’s some great mystery, some grand writing process that only insiders know—a secret society with elaborate handshakes, funny hats, code words, and custom embroidered silk undergarments. Allow me to pull back the curtain for you: None of that is true (except maybe the undergarments part—but that’s actually a matter of personal choice, and not a strict requirement for inclusion in our club). You imagine some genius “writer” with unique gifts you’ll never possess, sitting down and effortlessly cranking out page after page of flawless story, fresh off the top of their head. Am I right? A lot of people do in fact write this way—except for the “flawless” part.

Remember in school when your English teacher constantly tried to stifle your creativity, burying you under all her nonsensical rules about spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence diagramming, outlining and a whole bunch of other things you didn’t like and didn’t understand? It turns out she was right. (Not about everything, of course.) But writing is like any worthwhile endeavor, whether outdoor grilling, lifting weights, throwing a perfect spiral, tying French braids, or hand-stitching your family crest onto the most exquisite silk fabric, soft to the touch, delicious against your skin: It takes practice to get good at it. You have to actually do it if you want to improve.

I’ll break down each of these nonsense rules for you in other posts, but for now, let’s focus just on outlining.

UGH! you think. That’s just soooo boring!

And you’re right. Sort of. But also not.

Outlining is boring and a pain because you’ve likely been taught to try to do it in order: chronological, priority, whatever. And you try to type it out from scratch or write it on a notepad. But your brain doesn’t work like that. Your brain is like a giant dresser, with thousands of tiny drawers (millions, even). When you have an idea or learn something new, your mind opens a random drawer, throws that thought into it, makes some weird little notes about the drawers surrounding it, and then slams it shut. Recalling just one specific thought is a delicate matching game, like flipping over tiny cards with pictures of dinosaurs or kitties when you were a little kid, looking for an identical pair. The approach is time-consuming, inefficient…and boring.

What you need is to dump all of your ideas out of the drawers onto the floor where you can see them. You dump them essentially in the reverse of how they were stored in the first place. Just start jotting your thoughts down. I call this “writing down the bones,” a phrase which I stole from the title of a book I was supposed to read in graduate school, but didn’t and then lied about at the time. (I hope you can forgive me.) In my experience, a way that works for most people is to use Post-It notes and a huge blank wall. Write just a couple of words or a phrase on a Post-It—just enough to jog your memory for that idea—and stick it on the wall. Anywhere. Do that for every idea that you can possibly come up with related to what you want to write about. Eventually, your idea well will run dry. When it does, stop.

Now, start moving things around. Group Post-Its into categories that make sense to you. You’ll see stories emerge. Themes. Entire chapters. This process will also reveal the places where you have gaps. When you see a gap—a spot where two ideas need another thought (or more) in between them to make sense—write the bridging thoughts on Post-Its and stick those where they go.

Once you have all your thoughts arranged into groups—whether it’s into columns, circles, clusters, whatever—then sort within that group in a logical sequence. Is it a story? Then sort the events in the order in which they happened (chronological). Are they ideas you’re trying to share? Do you need to share some ideas first, to give your audience the foundation they’ll need to be able to understand your other ideas? Then put those foundational ideas first. If you again see gaps, write Post-Its that bridge them and stick them in place.

Once you have all of these things sorted into the appropriate silos, what you’re looking at, stuck there on your wall, is all of your ideas, neatly organized, showing you clearly where you should start, where you need to end, and what you need to do in between to get there. Also, what you’re looking at…is an outline. And it wasn’t boring at all. It was fun.

What are some other fun ways you know to organize your thoughts? Do you ever outline? Have you ever done the same kind of approach, only with 3×5 note cards, maybe on the floor? Do you remember learning the Dewey Decimal System in school? I think it’s genius. (Is it just me, or don’t you think the dude who designed it probably used drugs?)

9 Responses to “Catch Them Bones”

  1. Cooper Strange October 11, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    I have started keeping a writer’s journal, of sorts. It is just a spiral: nothing fancy, and even a little uninspiring in itself. I wish I had one of those fancy, leather-bound, non-lined, and full-on artsy journals, but I never did anything with those.

    I am trying to take this totally uninspiring spiral of paper and create something ex nihilo. Sometimes, I jot down lists of words, following thought after thought. Sometimes, I write a goofy, sub-standard, off-the-cuff poem. And sometimes I take my low-class poems and write a few paragraphs of prose using some of the key words I came up with in the poem.

    I am not really aiming to write anything in particular, when the post-its-on-the-wall method would be helpful, but rather to just enjoy creating and exercise those muscles.

    • Brannon October 11, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

      I got nothin’ against writers’ journals of any kind. I keep a little Moleskine around to jot down little notes, but I wouldn’t say I actually write in it, per se.

  2. Mark Morris October 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    This works, I use index cards to outline play and screenplay scripts, nearly always, with the rare exception of those times the story just magically appears in my head. A great book on the creative mind and though process is “Thinking Like Leonardo”. It is a book that explores the creative methods of Leonardo Davinci.

  3. Brannon October 11, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    Hm. Thanks for the tip. Here’s a link to it on Amazon for the lazy.

  4. Kendra Golden October 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    For the record, I am not aware of any such silk undergarments.

    • Brannon October 11, 2010 at 9:11 pm #


  5. Debbie Golden Miller Sewell October 12, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    Let’s start at the very beginning. A very fine place to start. When you read you begin with….A B C. When you sing you begin with DO RE ME. DO RE ME……..You always make me think, Bro. Love you! I REALLY want a great, big blank wall. It would be full of post it notes all the time.

    • Brannon October 13, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

      I love you, too.

    • Brannon October 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

      Or, perhaps even better: I love you two too.

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