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Small Chunks Go Down Easier (ft. Scrivener) #writing

via Academic Coaching & Writing:

“…When faced with a large writing project, writing coaches advise you to break the large project down into manageable writing assignments. Anne Lamott, author of bird by bird, imagines a one-inch picture frame and suggests you think in terms of this tiny frame rather than the big picture. Her book on her own writing process is called bird by bird because one night her older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to write a term paper on birds that he’d had months to write. He’d procrastinated, and it was due the next day. As he sat at the kitchen table in tears, with piles of books on birds and immobilized by the enormity of the task, his father sat down beside him, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Just as Anne’s brother re-conceptualized his term paper in terms of single birds, begin to think of your project in terms of short assignments. Remember a dissertation or a book is written one word at a time…”

I live by this. I write in paragraph-sized, 250 word ‘chunks’ at a time and use Scrivener to keep it all organized.  Scrivener allows users to write in documents (files) or folders, and to ‘stack’ documents or folders on top of each other so they collapse and expand hierarchically.  I prefer using documents over folders but it’s purely psychological. Documents allow me to imagine the book is divided into physical stacks of paper around my office. In real life, this wouldn’t be feasible but in Scrivener anything goes.

My system is largely based on a storyboarding method posted by Bombay in the Phinished forums. I won’t outline it here because I could never do it justice, but explore via the link above (you need to login to access it, but it’s worth it).  I tweaked the storyboard strategy to fit my needs. For all the analog professors out there, Bombay actually begins with a legal pad and does much of the process by hand.  Whichever way you try it, the general idea is small, visual, chunks help lay the foundation and can keep from having to backpedal later on.

How I use Scrivener as my ‘Writing Lab’


I create a Scrivener ‘binder’ for each book or essay project.  Most of the writing happens in a folder I name the Writing Lab.

In the Writing Lab, I create a document for each chapter, give it a working title, and then create sub-documents representing every single paragraph of that chapter. Each document (and thus each paragraph) has a goal of 250 words. Guided by the assumption a chapter is roughly 8-10,000 words, I add forty documents to each stack, right off the bat. Now my goal is not to write a 10,000 word chapter (multiplied by however many chapters there are), it’s to get through a 250 word paragraph and see where that takes me.

When I have an appropriate number of documents, I work on the rough organization of the chapter. I might designate three documents for the introduction and argument, five for background or backstory, seven to ten for each sub-argument, etc., save three at the end for the conclusion. As I go, I stack again and again, so the documents related to the introduction go into one pile, the documents related to the background go into another, and so on.  Predictably, the organization changes depending on the type of argument I’m trying to make, the story I want to tell, or the source material I’m working with.  An anecdote may need only two or three paragraphs but a court case may need fifteen to twenty.  Each Writing Lab is constructed differently but by the end, I’m able to literally fold and unfold the book by chapter and section, breaking the manuscript down into its most basic units.

With this rough organization in mind, I jump into writing.  I start wherever I feel most comfortable and most prepared, although I normally begin with the introduction and go from there.  Scrivener’s customization features are amazing. I use labels and colors with almost no restraint. When one of the documents meets the 250 word goal, I change the label to ‘Draft’ and the color to deep purple, then move on to the next.  The title of each document is my topic sentence so that when I move forward through the chapter, I can check back to see whether the topic sentences flow together. The last step is compiling and sending the entire document to MSWord for final formatting. Scrivener is not a word processor. It’s a workshop. The final tweaks still need to be done in another program, whether that’s OpenOffice or Pages or your favorite rich-text editor.

My strategy might be a mix of sequencing and subgoaling, with a little bit of outlining thrown in, but I think the point is to start small and work your way up and out. Starting small kills writing anxiety; starting big fuels it.

What’s your system?