Many of my favorite travel experiences were never part of any planned itinerary: running into someone from my hometown in a restaurant in a different continent, an impromptu concert experienced in a cathedral, or the tiny restaurant we stumbled into when the one we planned to visit was full, and which resulted in the most memorable meal of the trip.
Flexible travelers handle unexpected delays and detours with equanimity. They may have itineraries but remain present to the opportunities of each day as it unfolds. The more I try to maintain an open, adaptable mindset, the happier I am while traveling.
The same is true of writing. You may discover things in the process that affect your goals. Sometimes, the destination changes altogether.
I believe that if you immerse yourself in the process of writing, you will experience diversions and direction changes. Deep writing expands your thought processes, if you let it.
How can you bring a “flexible traveler” mindset to your writing?
Write to Explore
Set off on the writing journey without complete, turn-by-turn directions.
Fiction writers speak of being “plotters” or “pantsers.” Those in the first camp carefully plot out the book before writing, while the pantsers let the story unfold as they work. Even dedicated plotters report having rebellious characters who insist on taking the story in an unplanned direction. Once you’re committed to the writing, things start happening.
Nonfiction writers can access the same kind of discovery. In our busy, interrupt-driven world, we often lack the time to think deeply about an idea. Writing about a topic forces this kind of contemplation.
The act of writing is the physical manifestation of deep thought.
Give yourself permission to explore your topic in writing before you outline and draft the final topic. Write about the subject from different angles without a set direction or purpose. Use whatever name works for you for this effort. Here are a few:
- “Zero” drafts
- Letters to yourself
- Inner research (a brain dump)
If writing without a purpose sounds frivolous, consider working on smaller projects on your subject.
Michael Lewis is a prolific nonfiction author, writing on topics ranging from finance (The Big Short, Flash Boys) to sports analytics (Money Ball) to cognitive science (The Undoing Project.) In a podcast with the financial blogger Barry Ritholtz, Lewis revealed that some of his books start as smaller projects, such as in-depth articles for the New Yorker magazine. Some of those articles turn into books when he discovers that there’s more to explore. The article is a test bed for the book.
If you’re not comfortable with exploratory writing, consider finding other ways to engage with your topic:
- Give a talk at your local library
- Teach a workshop
- Write a blog series; do a podcast series
- Create an online course
The act of researching and synthesizing can take you in unexpected directions. You’ll learn about your topic and the market you hope to reach.
Keep Your Eyes (and Mind) Open
A traveler who remains buried in the guidebook, following the prescribed itinerary, often misses the unexpected vista up a side street. Don’t be that traveler.
Even as you write, watch for unexpected detours and new avenues of research. When something appears, take notes and see if it’s worth pursuing. Integrate the insights into the work or create a file of intriguing digressions.
If you do this long enough, you may notice that the draft is deviating from your initial outline. If that happens to you, rejoice. Your work has outgrown its initial outline. It will be better.
The act of engaging with the topic inevitably inspires changes.
A Note for Nonfiction Authors
Many nonfiction authors experience a structural crisis about halfway through the drafting process. They discover that the outline isn’t working. They lose interest in filling out the initial outline, or want to chapters that don’t have a home in the outline.
The midpoint crisis has happened to my four times (once for each book), and it’s afflicted other nonfiction authors I know. I believe this crisis is the hallmark of of a dedicated writer who is serving the reader and exploring as they write. Their work outgrows the initial outline.
If you’re planning to publish traditionally, do a great deal of research and drafting before you submit a book proposal. Otherwise, you may end up selling a book that you don’t want to write. In addition to the chapter outline and sample chapter, I suggest that you rough out at least half of the book before submitting the proposal, so you get past the midpoint crisis.
Be Willing to Abandon the Itinerary
Taking a new path in your writing inevitably means leaving the old one behind. As you look for opportunities, be aware that you may need to put aside work you’ve already done to pursue a different direction.
Don’t cling to your words. There are more where they came from.
Be careful about of taking this openness too far, however. Productive writers finish their projects. The world is filled with people abandon multiple writing projects, jumping from one to the next while never getting any work out into the world.
We write to explore our subjects and to serve the reader. Unpublished work cannot serve the reader. Like the traveler, eventually you have to land somewhere.