Writing backward and forward

There are two challenges with writing anything — flow and impact.

The flow problem is this: does each sentence lead into the next, and each paragraph lead into the next, in a way that draws the reader along?

The impact problem is this: does the piece take you with ironclad logic to a place where you can see, and embrace, the conclusion? Does tell you something important that you will remember and even act on?

These two goals are often in conflict.

If you write in a way that creates flow, the piece may not end up where you expected. This is what happens when you write something that seems to make sense as you are writing it, and end up someplace other than where you thought you were going. This is “writing forward,” starting at the beginning and ending at . . . wherever.

If you write with the conclusion constantly in mind, you may telegraph too much of your argument, repeat yourself, and string together ideas in a way that doesn’t make sense. This “writing backward,” starting with a conclusion and attempting to force your writing to find your way to it.

There is a way to maximize both flow and impact: the fat outline

Writing that draws you along typically comes from writing in a “flow” state — as that state is defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. That means clearing all the extraneous obstacles out of your way and working with concentration and free from interruptions.

One of the most challenging of those obstacles is the race towards the conclusion. You don’t run a marathon by thinking of the finish line at each step. You need to be fully present in each stage of the race.

One way out of this is to visualize the whole piece in your head, fully formed, before you write it. Most people can’t do this. Even those that can, can only do it if they’ve thought carefully about the piece over a period of hours or days.

There is a better way. It takes two steps.

First, organize all your evidence into a single document that’s full of useful bits and pieces. Rearrange those bits and pieces into a logical order. Include the evidence and reasoning that is necessary to get you to the conclusion. Put aside the pieces that aren’t helping.

The result is a “fat outline” — a messy, ungrammatical map of where you will start, where you will go, and how you will get to the end. Unlike a traditional outline, it is full of detail. You can write a fat outline backwards, starting from the conclusion and laying out the steps it will take to get there.

(Another way to do this is to write a repetitive, ungrammatical, ugly draft — Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft“. The result is the same: an unfinished hunk of material that maps out what has to be in the final piece.)

Once the fat outline or shitty draft is in place, find a time and place you can write uninterrupted, and write in flow. Because you have the fat outline or draft, you know where you are going. That removes the obstacles. And you can get into a state in which you can write beautiful prose, with flow — because you are writing forward.

Fat outlines are the missing link between impact and flow — between writing backward and forward. Impact and flow don’t need to be at cross purposes. The fat outline is the missing step that makes it possible to achieve both.

3 responses to “Writing backward and forward

  1. It’s interesting to read your thoughts here, Josh.

    I’ve been unknowingly using a fat outline for years.

    I suppose that I embrace this idea because I have confidence that I’ll end up in a good place. Also, I’m not married to all of the specific elements of my books’ structures. Ultimately, I’m comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.

  2. When writing pieces with several sources, I type my research from each in a different-coloured font. Then I can cut and paste according to logic and topic, and worry later about getting all the attributions in without worrying about mixing up who said what. If circumstance prevented me from taking notes on my laptop, I use a different-coloured highlighter to run down the side of my notes of each source’s input.

    When writing for a membership publication (which I do for a regular client), it also makes it easier for me to see if each source is getting approximately the same amount of space.

  3. Bookmarked the fat outline page – very good concept.

    Mind map tools (e.g. XMind has a free version) can be very helpful in developing fat outlines, as they can include text, graphics, and hyperlinks back to reference web pages.

    Being visual and electronic, it is easy to get your ideas out there in an ugly format, then rearrange the order into something more cohesive for writing.

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