I am, by nature, a pantser. This applies to everything I write, not just fiction. My approach to a research paper – or, for that matter, a legal brief – is to read as much as I can on the subject and then sit down surrounded by my materials and notes and start writing. Eventually, the work starts to take shape.
My solution to the outline requirement was simple: I created the outline after I finished the paper. Though I have the vague recollection that one particularly diabolical teacher required the outlines in advance. I cannot recall what I did in that case, since the odds are that I didn’t write the paper early so I could do the outline, but I’m sure I fudged things somehow.
I think my resistance to an outline is similar to my resistance to any set of rules: the minute someone tells me something has to be done this way, my immediate response is “no, it doesn’t”. That applies even when the person telling me to do it this way is me.
But it’s also because I am, at heart, an improvisationalist writer. I write things down, look at them, think “that doesn’t sound right,” and change them. And I keep doing it until they sound right.
I was reading some of Tim Harford’s book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, and his description of the work of various musicians – including Miles Davis and Brian Eno – resonated with me. They pulled high level professionals together, and then put them in situations where they had to soar instinctively. And they did.
He also recounts how Keith Jarrett gave the performance of a lifetime on an inferior piano, because he had to compensate for the instrument’s deficiencies and that allowed him to do something new.
I do think it’s telling that the musicians in question were already very good at their art. That is, while being a pantser may be a writer or other artist’s natural style, that person must master their craft before their instincts will give them the right answer. Martin Luther King Jr. gave some great improvised speeches – including “I Have a Dream” – but he had spent years doing serious preparation for every sermon, every talk.
Being an instinctive sort of writer, I don’t know how to tell anyone else to master the craft. For me, learning to write was a combination of reading a lot and writing a lot. I would read things and realize that certain phrases spoke to me or annoyed me. I read some books on writing – generally essays by writers, not how-to books – and found certain bits of advice rang true.
I just stumbled on an essay on writing by George Saunders that was full of ideas that rang true for me. Entitled “What Writers Really Do When They Write”, it is one of those rare articles that gives us what the title promises. Here’s one line that caught me:
What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done.
I can’t give you any specific bits of advice from this essay. I just know that reading it gave me some thoughts I tucked away in the back of my mind as things that might be relevant when doing my own work. If someone were to ask me how to become a writer, my current instinct is to give them a copy of this essay and suggest they read it and think about it.
This is probably why I don’t have any desire to teach writing. I don’t know how to explain this stuff in specific terms – in outline form, if you will. I get it by osmosis.
It is necessary that I credit growing up in a journalism household with a mother who was one of the world’s great editors. Having her go over my school assignments gave me my starting instincts.
But that’s all I understand about the process. Read a lot. Write a lot. Get someone who understands writing to read what you’ve done. Revise. Repeat.