10 ways to mine that mountain of material in your notebook.

You can map your way off the note mountain. (Photo by Deposit Photos.)
You can map your way off the material mountain. (Photo by Deposit Photos.)

Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.

Problem: I have too much material to handle.


1. Write for a while without reference to your notes.

Even if your notes are well organized, they can bog you down. Give yourself time to write about what you already know. This advice goes against the grain for those who think of the writing process in two parts: research then writing. Here are the benefits of early writing: It will help you learn what you already know; it will help you unveil what is most memorable; it will identify holes in your knowledge that can be filled with additional research.

2. Go through your notes and mark the very best material with three stars: * * *

Many writers get so attached to their material that they lose the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. Or better: they lose the ability to sort the really great wheat from the just OK wheat. Even elementary school students, when coached, learn the tools of that important part of the writing process called “selection.” Usually, it begins with a notebook in which the students will write quotes from an interview. “Find your best quote,” I tell them. “Now put a star next to it.”

3. Copy the best material you have and put the other material aside.

You may need two or three boxes, or computer files. The first will contain material you know you’ll want to use, and you’ll want to make a copy of that material as backup. Another box holds the stuff you probably won’t use. The third will hold things you are not yet sure about.

4. Create a random list of the 10 most important things that will be in your story.

When you know your material well enough, brainstorm a list of the most interesting or important elements. Once you have a list, begin to move things around, looking for some kind of order. It will be easier if you don’t try to give any items priority at first; better to begin the list as the elements come to you. Next comes a period of quiet contemplation to study the list, expand it, move elements around, begin to imagine a better order – all in the hopes of discovering the best bone structure for the story itself.

5. Now make a list of the five most important things.

If you have a list of 10, cut it to five. Force yourself to make hard choices – or get a pal to help you. If I were your writing coach, I’d ask you to winnow a list of 10 to five; of five to three; of three to one. The entire process is one of distillation, of boiling it down, cooling it off, boiling it down again, until you arrive at the essence of your idea or argument.

6. Create files for each of the most important elements.

Once you have decided on the most important parts, you can create a file for each and divide your best material into these compartments. Many writers develop electronic files to store their most important stuff, using advanced technical skills to move and manage and massage material therein. That said, I retain my affection for paper copies of my notes and clippings, stored in manila folders or hanging files, because I can better see everything at once, gaining both visual and tactile mastery over material that could easily fly out of control.

7. Write down the 10 most important parts on index cards.

Getting your arms around a big project requires you to create an index or a table of contents for your story, naming each important part. I still keep the index cards I used in 1996 to create a 29-part serial narrative titled “Three Little Words.” That stack contains about 125 cards. Because it was a story rather than a report, the basic structural elements were scenes. I read through hundreds of pages of notes from hours and hours of transcribed interviews, and each time I came across a scene, I would create a card for it.

8. Play with the cards to find a meaningful order.

Lay out your cards on a rug or a bulletin board. Look for a coherent order where the parts fit nicely. You can always change your mind later. If you are writing a story, for example, you will be using time elements to help shape the narrative. Even if scenes appear in chronological order, the writer still must decide where to begin and where to end each scene. The story requires a sequence of scenes, and your cards will help you find the best sequence.

9. Pull out file #1 and card #1 and start writing.

You’ve got to start somewhere. Perhaps part one will become part three before you are through. You can try taking your cards in order to see where it leads you. Or, you may want to try a preliminary step, that is, to write the introduction to your project without reference to any books, files, or cards. This will be a wonderful test for you and your methods.

10. Write a mission statement for your story, listing the three things readers will take from you work.

Write yourself a note about your hopes for your writing project. What are you trying to accomplish? Before you know exactly what you want to put into a story, imagine what you want your reader to get out of it. Such commentary can appear in a book as a foreword or afterword, often written last. Writing it first helps you test your theses. If it proves strong enough, it can guide how you organize and execute the rest of the work.

You can find earlier chapters of this series here.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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