Muses Are Fickle, Part 3: Congenial Quality Control


So Long NaNoWriMo ’16

I’ve been so productive meeting the daily writing goals suggested by NaNoWriMo that I didn’t even notice the venture wrapped up last Wednesday.

When NanoWriMo started back in 1999, 21 writers participated. The following year, just under 150 joined. Then the event went viral: 5,000 writers participated in 2001, and by 2015 (the most recent year for which data are available) 431,656 aspiring novelists signed up. That is nearly half a million people, almost the population of Malta.


Sure, Malta is a small country. But convincing 400,000 people to voluntarily commit to a daily writing practice is extraordinary. 40,000 of these participants met NaNoWriMo’s challenge to produce 50,000 words at an average of 1667 words / day.

This year, I certainly didn’t even come close to the NaNoWriMo goal. But I wrote more with NaNoWriMo than I would have otherwise. Even though the event has birthed aslew of beautifullywrittenliterature (especially YA), its real value is constructing a flexible, attainable framework for getting words on paper. But don’t worry about losing momentum. The folks behind NaNoWriMo have christened January and February the “Now What?” months, dedicated to revising what was written in November. So we’ll pick up with them then.

Congenial QC

Hopefully, you’ve been spared the crushing anxiety, existential despair, and throttling dry-heaves I endure when starting a new writing project. If these plagues have visited themselves upon you, yet you’re still reading this, you’ve probably deployed some hardcore pre-writing techniques (like abstracts, or cubing and brainstorming, or whatever works for you) to get out of your own way and put some words on the page. Looking back at what I’ve discussed in previous posts, by this point, you’ve managed to silence your inner critic in order to produce. That’s no small accomplishment. Now that you’ve got ample raw material, it’s time to fashion your notes into a coherent draft.

See, silencing your inner critic means chucking out any sense of quality control. At this point, you are ready to ease some congenial QC back into your work because nobody wants to read your unrevised freewriting. To move seamlessly from notes to a draft, I do this:

Not How But Why

Outlining is nothing more than systematically organizing what you’ve drafted. It’s a sequence of practices designed to show the hierarchal relationship or logical ordering of information” that are used to refine your argument, prioritize evidence, and keep track of examples.

However, as a skill, outlining’s not accessible in the same way brainstorming is. It is not open-ended; it is highly structured. There are procedures. If you’re still in the idea generation phase, the strictures of outlining can shut down your creative process and may lead to feelings of defeat. So, don’t try it until your work is sufficiently developed to warrant it.

For specific instructions on how to outline, clickonanyoftheselinks. Many smart people have done the hard work of demoing outlines, and since I can’t do a better job myself, I refer you to their work.

Rather, I’ll share a few thoughts about why to outline. An outline is a framework for organizing information from most general to most specific. Usually, large categories are marked with Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, etc.), and subcategories take upper-case letters (A, B, C, D, E, etc.), and so on, through Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.), and lower-case letters.


But this labelling scheme turns out to function on several levels. While you’re creating the outline, it helps keep information separate. Then, once the outline is completed, you’ll know at a glance how important a particular piece of information is in context, based on how its been marked. This way of demonstrating relationships between pieces of information is the key to outlining success.

I need outlining because I have no trouble writing high volumes of material, but I’m not so skilled when it comes to judging that material’s relevance to the piece overall. In my mind, I tend to think everything’s interesting, especially if it’s a topic I’ve decided is worth my own time and effort.

Mind the Contract

Use an outline to gauge whether you’re writing for yourself or your audience. If you cannot decide whether a particular point or a whole paragraph is a I, an A, 1, or a, you cannot expect the reader to deal with it. No matter how smart, or clever, or in love with it you are. That would be a breach of the implicit contract that exists between all writers and their readers. Just say a little prayer of mourning, and then cut it out of the document and save it for some future piece.

Next time, I’ll talk more about outlining.Thanks to Mark Davis and Lauren Waddell for their revising help.


“Muses Are Fickle” is an occasional series about best practices for starting and staying writing. Stay tuned for Part 4. Subscribe now to get notified about all the latest content from Zoho.


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