Begin with the end in mind. That’s Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In most human endeavors, this is excellent advice. In large matters and small, beginning with the end in mind helps ensure that the steps you take move you in the right direction. I heartily commend this advice to you…in all areas of your life besides writing.
This letter is Part 2 of a series about getting started on a new story or essay. Today’s advice is this: Be willing to begin without the end in mind. And if you do have the end in mind when you begin, hold it very loosely.
Of the four novels I’ve written, only one ended the way I originally thought it was going to end. You can’t be sure how a story ends until you get into it. As I said last week, you have to trust that once you get the pen moving and the neurons firing, good things are going to happen.
Trying to have everything figured out before you get started is often just a kind of procrastination; for me it is, anyway. Your insights grow and change as you write. There are things you can’t possibly see or understand until after you have been writing for a while. Too much figuring on the front end of a story or essay can be a waste of time. At some point you have to dive in and see what happens. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
And sometimes insisting on knowing the end from the beginning is worse than a waste of time. If you’re overly invested in some particular ending, or in some particular point you want to make, you may be shutting yourself off to your best or truest ideas. One reason to write is to sort out what is true; you don’t always know what’s true (or truest) at the beginning of the writing process.
I see this principle at work in a lot of my students’ academic essays. In a five-page paper, a student writer will go along tepidly and uninspiringly for about four and a half pages, and then, around the next-to-last paragraph, she says something brilliant and wise and true. Then the paper is over—just when it was getting good.
How does this happen? How is it that the same person can write poorly for four and a half pages, and so brilliantly for half a page? Actually this shouldn’t surprise any of us. You can’t really expect to have brilliant ideas until you’ve written a few pages (maybe more than a few). The student’s mistake wasn’t to write four uninteresting pages; the mistake was to turn in four uninteresting pages. (And the mistake behind that mistake, one suspects, was to start writing the night before the paper was due).
Those first four pages of lackluster writing are just a part of the process; they are nothing to be ashamed of. The path to the good stuff often goes through the dull and self-evident stuff. Keep the pen moving, and prepare to be amazed at the ideas that come to you.
People ask me sometimes about my “process,” and specifically whether I write from outlines or whether I write from the seat of my pants. I will now answer that question, but with this necessary caveat: describing my process isn’t the same thing as giving advice. When it comes to getting the pen moving, you’ve got to do whatever works, and what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another. (I find it very difficult, for instance, to compose on a computer. I have to use pen and paper; sometimes I even compose emails with pen and paper before typing them in.)
But I digress. Here’s my “process” for getting started: I usually write from an outline. That outline usually turns out to be wrong. So I have learned to give myself just enough of an outline to get the pen moving, but I try not to belabor the outline because I know it will probably turn out to be wrong anyway. So, once I have a quick outline, I start writing. I write until an interesting or compelling idea makes its way out—hopefully an idea that will give rise to other interesting or compelling ideas. Then I reorganize around that idea, often dashing off another outline (which will also probably turn out wrong).
I take great comfort and great confidence in the truth that the writer doesn’t make meaning. The writer recognizes meaning and gives voice to it. Sometimes you recognize that meaning before you start writing (sometimes, indeed, that recognition is what sets you to writing). But I encourage you to be open to the likelihood that the most important recognition will happen only after you’ve written for a while. Be willing to begin without the end in mind.
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Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.