How to get better at organizing my ideas in writing?
August 30, 2014 11:35 PM   Subscribe

How can I get better at organizing my ideas in writing? I want to be able to write essays, long-form blog posts, articles, etc. I want to be able to use in-depth writing as a tool to accomplish things, instead of just enduring it when it comes up. I'm interested in resources (classes? books?), techniques, and advice.

A little background:

I've always struggled with the process of writing (though not the elements of it - my standardized test scores in writing and language skills were, ironically, always perfect). I'm great at writing things like step-by-step instructions for how to do something, but I clam up as soon as I start working on anything abstract. I understand the idea of making an outline, but when I try to do it, I get stuck and frustrated. Sometimes thinking of questions that need to be answered helps me get prose out, but it doesn't help with structure. I'm totally happy when I'm editing other people's writing (even when I'm contributing full sentences to it), and I have a much easier time seeing and tweaking the structure of a piece when it's not my own. I just can't seem to take that ability to my own work.

Making things more difficult, the process of writing makes me feel terrible, emotionally and physically. In college, writing for assignments was sometimes so painful and daunting that I'd have trouble breathing and sleeping.

I'd originally thought I'd go back to school pretty soon after college. My terror of writing is the #1 thing that's kept me from doing it. I've not applied for jobs I'd probably have been good at because I was afraid they might require me to write things. I'm asking this question now because I'm working on the first ~3000 word writing assignment I've had since college (for a journal in my field that publishes both academics and non-academics), and it feels just as terrible as it ever did when I was in school. I really wish it didn't! I care about the subject I'm writing about, and I want to make a good argument. It's just that I can't, or I feel like I can't. It sucks! So even if I can't improve things this time around, I'd like to do something before I get to next time.

Please help!
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Naturally, I am full of advice that I should probably be following myself. That, however, is not stopping me from sharing suggestions. I have an MFA in creative writing and do all kind fo writing myself these days, so I want to share things that have worked for me.

First, finding something that works for you is key. For example, those bubble chart things people suggest for brainstorming? Don't work for me. Outlines? Don't work for me. Things that do work vary with my mood, but I generally like to crank up music I like, put a big piece of paper on the floor, and go to town on it with a fat Sharpie.

Other things that help are keeping different word docs (or at least different pages within the same doc) so that I don't feel like I need to tie everything together at once. An idea I picked up from a book was to write, either on a sheet of paper or in a document, NOT FOR ESSAY 9or whatever you're writing) to help take the pressure off.

I do like index cards, post-it notes, etc. to help me organize ideasThey are fun and also helpful.

I personally find it great to color-code things or label with stickers or whatever, just to make it more fun.

Also, I don't know what kind of essays you want to write, but there are plenty of amazing essays out there that are not linear at all. If your topic and audience are the sort that will permit being non-linear, kudos! You are in good company. Feel free to PM me if you would like suggestions for reading material.
posted by mermaidcafe at 12:10 AM on August 31, 2014

I can't promise this will work for you, but the way I got over similar issues was to realize that I was great at editing but terrible at starting and putting words on paper. So, the solution is to just start writing. You don't have to have a detailed organizational plan or a great outline. Just start putting words on paper, even if they sound dumb or obvious. If you are really blocked then consider a voice recorder or software like Dragon Naturally Speaking and just start talking. If you are writing an essay, forget about the intro. Start writing at the second or third paragraph, and just write about the topic. It doesn't have to be coherent sentences, and it doesn't have to be complete paragraphs. Feel free to write one or two sentences in a paragraph and move on to the next. Basically just write freeform notes about the topic. If you have notes from your research, copy them to a new document and just start adding detail and expanding them inline. Keep it loose and easy, if it's messy that's just fine. Keep on doing this until you have the bulk of your ideas on paper. Then go back and expand, add detail, quotes, citations, dialogue. Write an intro and a conclusion. Read the whole thing back again, out loud, editing as necessary, and then go out for some ice cream. Forget about trying to organize everything ahead of time, and embrace iteration. Funnily enough I had to learn the same things all over again after I started writing software professionally.
posted by sophist at 1:18 AM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

The advice that I give myself regarding this? Let your first draft be TERRIBLE, let it be the worst thing ever written, power through it, write, write, write, write, write it over again, try again, just keeeeep going, no matter how excruciating.

The first few (or dozen) pages that I write are actually figuring out what I DON'T want to say. When I first start something big, I just write write write. It's rambly, incoherent, the topics go all over the place, I spend way too much time talking about irrelevant things, etc. And that's EXACTLY what needs to happen in order to move forward. I get everything out, I say everything I want to say, and then I go back look at it. Not as a piece of writing, but as a map.

I look back at everything and ask myself questions like:
- What is the focus of THIS piece? Maybe some of what I wrote is good, but it's really not for what I'm doing now.
- What parts do I find the most interesting as a reader? (talking about subject matter only, not the prose)
- What works, what doesn't, and why?
- Am I having trouble explaining something? I probably don't understand it well enough and I need to do more research.

After this first step, it begins to feel like it might actual become something not horrible. Maybe now it's ready for an outline. Or maybe I'll do the first step all over again, but a little bit more concentrated this time. I more or less write write write, and then toss toss toss toss, until it's something worthwhile.
posted by hannahelastic at 3:27 AM on August 31, 2014

I am a big fan of writing using tree-based organizers like Treepad, MyNotesKeeper and, if you're very ambitious, Scrivener, in order to keep the draft in manageable chunks, move them around if needed, and (most importantly) keeping an eye on the way they are organized.
posted by yclipse at 4:18 AM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

It the outline thing doesn't work for you, maybe try the opposite. Think of all the vague unrelated points you want to make and try to write a good sentance for each of them. Then try to expand these and see if you can link them. This will at least get you started.
posted by smugly rowan at 4:39 AM on August 31, 2014

I'm a developmental editor (mostly fiction), graduated with an English/poetry/journalism/comm major way back when, and have done everything from technical writing to planning vast communication programs within Fortune 500 companies. Fifteen years ago, while on a sabbatical, I did The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. The practice of writing three spontaneous, unedited pages first thing every morning was transformative and is still my go-to anchor when I need to press the reset button on my relationship with writing and editing.

My opinion is that downgrading the writing and editing process from something precious to something like a workday chore greatly helps you detach from content, alleviate stress over word count, and build an innate bullshit meter about structure and quality. It takes some time but after, say, four-six months of morning pages you will have a much better sense of what works and what doesn't in your other writing, and will be able to "hear" that sense without a lot of anxiety cluttering the airwaves. I highly recommend it.

(I preferred writing longhand using a specific notebook, but I find I write more, faster, if I type online. There's a site,, where you can do your three pages digitally, if that makes it easier to start and keep at it.)
posted by cocoagirl at 5:50 AM on August 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

The very short book "thinking on paper" was useful for me
posted by meijusa at 6:09 AM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Note cards.

I learned it in high school and it's served me well. You write one idea per card. Topic sentences, themes, etc. Then you sit on the floor and lay them all out, moving them around until the essay is coherent. As you think of other ideas, you can put them in the proper place.

I learned this before word processing and it saved me untold hours of re-typing, but it's still a great way to organize your thoughts and ideas.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:53 AM on August 31, 2014

> My opinion is that downgrading the writing and editing process from something precious to something like a workday chore greatly helps you detach from content, alleviate stress over word count, and build an innate bullshit meter about structure and quality.

This describes what happened when I went from writing in school, which I found painful, to writing in a work environment where we routinely had to produce written content, whether reports or powerpoint presentations. Because producing reports was such a routine task for the company, the company had a defined process for doing it, including standardized templates. Basically you grabbed the appropriate template for the type of document you had to produce, and then just filled in the blanks, you didn't even have to generate your own outline.

An important aspect of the process was that it made you go through distinct steps, producing drafts at each step, so that there was no pressure to produce the perfect final version on the first try. So first, you produced what might be called the shitty first draft - a couple of sentences in each section, placeholder text just saying [X goes here], bullet points, something that laid down what you thought the document would contain and the main takeaways for the reader. Then you circulated this to the other people assigned to the project, who would provide feedback about other things that needed to be included, stuff you could omit, points that needed to be explained in detail, etc. So now what needs to be where in the document is nailed down. Writing might get split up between project team members, or you might remain the main author with others sending you sections or paragraphs to incorporate. So you produce the second draft, and circulate it. If no major changes are needed a review meeting is proposed. The review meeting is for checking that the document is in a deliverable state - this is when wordsmithing happens, if needed. The end result of the review meeting is the final, deliverable version of the document.

Applying this to your current writing project, note that most academic journal articles have a very standard structure. Check out the articles of the particular journal you are writing for to determine the typical structure of the articles - e.g. Introduction, Background/Previous Research/Literature Review, Research Questions, Methods/Data, Results, Discussion, Conclusion. So then it's just a matter of filling in the sections. As you write you may discover the initial outline or structure you had is not working well and you may need to combine sections or add a section. Then go ahead and do it - outlines themselves need to be revised, because sometimes you can't tell until you've written out a certain amount that the outline you had in mind initially wasn't the best fit for the material.

See if you can try to put yourself in the mindset that you are editing somebody else's writing (I know this is easier said than done!). Or do you have somebody you'd feel comfortable with showing drafts as you're working on them? Note that there are people who are comfortable reading rough drafts, and people who can't tolerate anything that doesn't look like a final version. You want to avoid the latter.
posted by needled at 6:57 AM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you'd really enjoy Phillip Lopate's "To Show and To Tell."
posted by mbrock at 7:08 AM on August 31, 2014

I've had the same issues, but for me it was undiagnosed dyslexia.
posted by Middlemarch at 1:03 PM on August 31, 2014

Experiment with plagiarism. Copy and paste lots of other people's relevant writing (and your own, I guess) into the same document. Keep doing this until your document is way too long. Lots of repetitive stuff preferably.

This mass of text is the granite block from which you carve your sculpture. Edit, rearrange, add, delete, tweak, merge the repetitive stuff. By the time you are done processing all of it, the plagiarism will be gone (or masked) and you can put quotation parts around the parts that aren't.

Another way of saying this is to create a "commonplace book," and go from there.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 3:22 PM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are good at writing in chunks but not good at organizing and managing those chunks, try some software designed to help you write.
posted by pracowity at 4:53 AM on September 1, 2014

Your post really hits a chord with me! After years of fantasizing about a job that entails a lot of writing I just started one a few months ago and I'm still struggling with writing anxiety.

Pretty much the best way to get better is to get feedback. Probably 100% of all published writing you compare yourself to has been through at least one editor. I've actually been wanting to try to find a writing group, but since I only write non-fiction I haven't had great luck yet. If you have any interest in starting up a MeFi writing group feel free to MeMail me.

I've found that doing some form of diagraming helps a lot. I write about technical academic papers and I find it hard to organize and filter out exactly what was interesting, what is important, what's too technical. I find that pulling out three or four of the key points (what was the conclusion, what were the experiments, why should people care) does a lot to help me filter out what's important and worth including.

When I first start writing I try to write the way I would explain the paper to my mom. I don't know, this also helps me mentally get in a zone where I can just write without anxiety.

When I get stuck on trying to make a particular phrase or sentence better, I like to copy and paste it into a blank document just so I can try lots of different permutations to see what works.

I also like to write as much as I can in one sitting and then wait a few hours or a day before going back and editing.

I still struggle with a lot of anxiety about writing though. I've been going through some free/very cheap online writing seminars from Poynter News University. I'm also strongly considering buying some dictation software like Dragon to just help me get something down on paper when I'm really struggling.
posted by forkisbetter at 9:40 AM on September 1, 2014

I get a big piece of paper (no lines!) or a whiteboard and start drawing. I use words, shapes, and crappy pictures. And I just write something about all the little pieces. From here, I see how things might link up. Then, I might do it again, a little more organized. I start writing when it feels right.
posted by jander03 at 12:42 PM on September 2, 2014

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