More Good Writing Habits: Think. Plan. Write. Think More. Plan more. Rewrite.

Posted: May 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Efficient Work Habits | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

In the past few posts, we’ve talked about habits that lead to efficient writing, such as working on a Big Clean Screen and Finding the Flow. Today, let’s dig deeper and focus on the importance of planning before you write and refining that plan while you write. Here goes.

Think First. Write Later.

Word-processing software is irresistible. It can seduce you to start writing before you have begun thinking. Practice safe writing. Put your major thoughts in place before you begin writing. At the very least, collect your thoughts on a single, scribbled work page or a mind map. (I’ll talk more about mind mapping in later posts, but it’s the same technique you learned in junior high school.)

But Begin Writing Before You Have Finished Thinking.

You will learn about your topic simply 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)—the longest magazine article ever published—he created a handwritten flow chart taking up several feet of butcher paper. (Langiewische’s butcher-paper outline is reproduced in this Columbia Journalism Article.)

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, so 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, those files can also serve as your outline. Keep a careful filing system, with files for major topics and sub-files for lesser topics. Arrange the files in a logical order and order the cases or statutes within each file, as well. 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.


Next, we’ll talk about thinking with your hands, writing in layers, and talking to yourself while you write. (It helps to be a little bit crazy.) Stay tuned.

P.S. Chapter 12 of  My book covers The Process of Writing and Overcoming Writer’s Block in more detail.


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