Think before you write, but begin writing before you have finished thinking.

Posted: June 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Efficient Work Habits, Mission Critical Stuff, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Writing is a discipline so it requires that you have efficient, disciplined work habits. Since you are being paid to write, you do not have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. Like any professional writer, you must produce on demand. If you develop good writing habits, those habits will become ingrained and over time, you will find that writing becomes easier and faster.  

We have already talked about the importance (and bliss!) of finding the “flow” and how working on a big screen will improve your productivity. Today, let’s talk about how to organize your thoughts before you start writing.

Think First. Write Later.

Word-processing software is irresistible. It seduces us to start writing before we have begun thinking. Practice safe writing. Put your major thoughts in place—by creating a work page, a mind map or even (horrors!) an outline— before you give into the urge to puts words on paper. (Read on for more on outlining. I’ll talk about mind-mapping in a later post.)

But Begin Writing Before You Have Finished Thinking.

You will learn about your topic by writing about it. So, while you must have some plan in place before you begin writing, that plan will change as you write. Let it change. If you stay flexible and open to new ideas while you write, your paper will become deeper and more relevant. And if you wait to start writing until you have finished thinking, you may never start writing at all.

Have a Plan.

But you must have some plan in place before you begin—whether it is a scribbled work page or a detailed, numbered outline. For example, before William Langiewische wrote his 70,000 word article, “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center,” in The Atlantic Monthly (July and August, 2002) —then the longest magazine article ever published—he created a handwritten flow chart taking up several feet of butcher paper. (A portion of Langiewische’s butcher-paper outline is reproduced in in this article from the Columbia Journalism Review.)

Outline As You Go.

Outlining works. It is a flexible, efficient tool for organizing your thoughts. But many lawyers avoid outlining, believing it requires them to have a global vision of their paper before they write. Instead, outline in piecemeal fashion while you write. Begin with the most obvious themes: What is your most important case or line of cases? What headings summarize those cases? Then work through your research, case by case, creating new headings and plugging cases into existing headings.

If you approach outlining as a tool, rather than a rigid guideline, outlining will give you control over your writing because it will keep you focused on the big picture. Again, the goal is to have a perfected outline in place by the time you finish writing.

Once you have finished writing and your outline is complete, use that outline as the master key for proofing the structure of your paper. If the outline is perfect, then so is the structure of your paper. The craft of legal writing becomes art through masterful use of structure and your finished outline is your best resource for fine-tuning structure.

Outline from Memory.

The mind is a wonderful sifting device. If you let your ideas ferment in your brain, the cream will rise to the top. So begin outlining from memory. Your best ideas are probably the ones that come to mind first.

Use Your Research Files As an Outline.

If you have filed your research carefully, your filing system can also serve as your outline. Arrange your files in a logical order and order the cases or statutes within each file. The resulting order will resemble the dreaded linear outline and involves only a fraction of the effort involved in creating a linear outline from scratch.


I’ll post later about mind-mapping, creating a routine, and writing from the middle out. So stay tuned.



P.S. I did lots of thinking and outlining before I wrote my book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing.

Subscribe in a reader

2 Comments on “Think before you write, but begin writing before you have finished thinking.”

  1. 1 David said at 10:09 pm on November 5th, 2013:

    All good points, but as a professional writer myself I think that part of developing good habits is creating an environment where you’re able to write. Too many attorneys don’t have this oasis – they are too busy, they have too many distractions. (Not that I’m complaining, that’s why they hire me, after all!) For me, the routine that works is to plan what I’m going to write the day before, let it percolate in my mind, then hit it first thing the next morning. Crank up the music and churn it out.

  2. 2 mariebuckley said at 2:35 pm on November 6th, 2013:

    Very good point, David. And many famous authors says that writing for a few hours first thing in the morning is the key to their routine. But I admire anyone who can write with music cranking. I need dead silence!

    Thanks for commenting,


What do you think?