Plan your writing project, part 2

Martina Tyrrell
June 11, 2024

In my last blog, I championed planning as a means to reach your writing goals effectively and efficiently. Today, I want to delve a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of planning, how to plan, tools to use, and so on.

First of all, I want to be clear that I’m talking here about planning content and not about time management. The focus here is planning what you write and not when you write.

Whether you’re setting out to write 100 words or 100,000 words, the blank page can be daunting. Sure, you have a great idea. But how are you going to start it and then make it to the finish line?

Content planning is a multi-layered endeavour, starting shallow and broad and digging deeper through layers of greater and greater specificity. Creating a mind map allows you to lay all your ideas out in front of you. I’m a Luddite, so, for me, nothing beats an A4, A3 or larger sheet of paper or a whiteboard (I always keep a supply of A3 paper to hand specifically for mind mapping bigger projects). However, if you’re more digitally inclined, Harry Guinness offers a comprehensive explanation of mind mapping together with a review of five mind mapping apps here.

With your central idea in the middle of the page, give yourself free rein to explore where you want to go with your idea. What key themes/concepts emerge? What subthemes/plot points/narrative development emerge from that? How are themes/concepts related to each other? Make your mind map as messy as you like – this is why I prefer handwritten over digital – the messiness gives you a sense of the connections and relationships between your ideas.

Already, you should start to see a structure emerge. You might be able to establish from your completed mind map the order of your chapters. (This can be scaled down to sections/subsections/paragraphs if your project is shorter, such as an essay). Which chapters naturally go together? Which follow on one from the other? Now you’ve got the overall structure of your writing project.

Guess what? It’s time to mind map again, this time for the development and content of each individual chapter. Your chapter mind map will help you to figure out themes/concepts/plot development, how they relate and how they will be placed in relation to one another.

You have now brainstormed and planned each chapter of your manuscript. It’s time to step back from this close-up and take a bird’s eye view once again. Now that you’ve done this more specific plan, ask yourself: Does it still work? Are there contradictions or dead ends? Is the plan going in circles? Is there repetition? If so – and it’s likely to be so – it’s time to revise your plan to remove those glitches. Do chapters need to be moved around? Does content from one chapter need to be moved somewhere else? Or removed entirely?

Eventually, and possibly after multiple iterations, you will be satisfied with your plan. Don’t rush this planning stage. Give it time to develop.

However, you are not finished yet. Whether you are writing a non-fiction or fiction manuscript, you will likely have gathered supporting materials – research data for your essay or dissertation, research on the Civil War for your novel set in 1920s Ireland, your travel notes and diaries for your cycling across Siberia memoir. It’s now time to organize these into your chapters. Here’s where the digital tools that Harry Guinness reviews can help to organize your thoughts and data. Do you have all the data you need? If not, where are the gaps and what further research do you need to do to fill those gaps?

Eventually, you will have in front of you a comprehensive plan for your writing project, including the overall structure, the structure of each chapter/section, and the accompanying research data that you will use in each chapter/section. You know the start, middle and end and you know the steps you’re going to take. It’s time to start writing.

A note on mind mapping and procrastination

Your ultimate goal is to write a project to completion, right? Take care, therefore, not to get too caught up in perfecting your mind map. Your project will continue to evolve as you write, as new ideas come to you. The mind map is simply a way to provide you with structure. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Similarly, there are some great digital tools available and it’s all to easy to get caught up in their different features. Don’t let playing around with those features become a form of procrastination. Use those tools to your advantage, to make your writing process more efficient.

What are you waiting for? Get planning!

What I’m working on this week

Arctic anthropology is close to my heart (I’m an Arctic anthropologist, after all), so this past week has been a delight as I’ve delved into reading five or six manuscripts for a project that I’ve just signed up for. I’m on home turf and I couldn’t be happier. From north to south, I ended up working this weekend to complete re-edits for final submission of a journal article on health and welfare in a South American country. The weekend work was precipitated by a trip to Ireland without my laptop and the client patiently giving me an extra couple of days to complete the work. Meanwhile, my ghostwriting client has returned the penultimate draft of our manuscript and I’ll start final revisions on that later today.

What I’m reading

Unusually for me, I read two books this past week. I wish I could read two books every week, but I simply don’t have the time. One of my favourite movies is Ridley Scott’s The Martian and, following advice from friends, I finally read the book by Andy Weir on which the movie is based. I couldn’t put it down. And I couldn’t stop thinking about when I wasn’t reading it. The movie digresses only a little, but the book is so much more detailed, going into precise scientific detail about every decision Mark Watney makes or about each disaster that befalls him. And he has a lot more disasters to deal with in the book! My only gripe was the way Weir wrote the women in the story. While the men are never described, nor are their inner thoughts revealed (with the occasional exception of the protagonist), there are descriptions of the women as ‘beautiful’ and of one woman looking with envy at the beauty and style of another. Unnecessary, Mr. Weir, and you didn’t treat the boys that way.

At Dublin airport, I bought John Boyne’s novella, Earth, about a young professional footballer, originally from a little island off the west coast of Ireland, who is on trial for being an accessory to a rape. It had tones and hints of A Little Life, which grated on me, because that was my favourite book of last year.

In other news…

A word of advice: Never ever travel on the 19:35 Friday Ryanair flight from Dublin to Faro!

We had a lovely few days back in Ireland. Lily sat her Junior Cert English exam and, once that was out of the way, we spent time with family and friends. And then we got on the Friday evening flight back home. Drunk hen parties, drunk gangs of friends, drunk people in general, who’d obviously started their Algarve holiday in Dublin airport, or earlier. The noise. The abuse of and lack of respect for the onboard staff. One guy stood on his seat when the seatbelt sign was still on and REMOVED HIS TROUSERS! Two members of the hen party in the row in front of me were aggressively suggestive throughout the flight to the poor young lad who was unfortunate enough to be sharing the row with them. I found out later that that particular flight is generally like that. I hope the staff are paid double for that flight.

Image by Vecteezy

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