The Spiral Method for Writing Zeroth Drafts

One night in late December, as I was falling asleep, I had a thought about how to flesh out ideas for articles. I sat up, grabbed a pen and an index card from the stack I keep next to the bed, and wrote:

  1. Write the nugget.
  2. Then write the implications of the nugget.
  3. Then support the nugget.

I was excited about this idea, because though I am quite good at inventing nuggets — the central claims that make me want to write articles in the first place — I struggle with the rest of the writing process, the process of growing a nugget into an article worth writing. I keep forgetting the simple principles that every other author surely knows: Say why this claim is worth reading, and justify the claim. Writing those two simple principles gave me a way to remember, and a way to build articles from nuggets.

The next night, as I was falling asleep, I refined the previous night’s thought:

  1. Write the nugget.
  2. Write any questions I want to ask about what I have written so far.
  3. Answer one question. Return to step 2.

This new version generalizes on the first. The earlier version says to ask and answer two questions: So what? and What makes you so sure? The new version extends that to any question, giving me even more ways to build the article. I liked this new version even better.

On the third night, as I was falling asleep, I refined again, resulting in a process that I call The Spiral Method for Writing Zeroth Drafts:

  1. Write the nugget.
  2. Write any questions I want to ask about what I have written so far.
  3. Select the question that I have the most energy for answering, and answer it. Return to step 2.
  4. Stop when I've answered all of the questions, or when I have little energy to answer any of the unanswered questions.

I liked this version better still, especially the focus on energy as the key criterion for what to write and when to stop. Focusing on energy ensures that each bit I write not only supports the central idea, but also adds some zing.

So far, I’ve used the Spiral Method three times. Each time, I created enough material for a full article (or two!) in about 30 minutes. Next came hours of editing to shape each zeroth draft into publishable form. The result: four articles and lots of surprises.

Several days after I created the Spiral Method I realized that I’d been inspired by Mark Forster’s process for growing an article, which I’d learned about through Keith Ray’s blog entry of November 30. To grow an article, Mark writes a single sentence, then revises it until the article is done.

As you can see, both Mark’s approach and mine start with a core idea and build outward. The Spiral Method has a little more structure than Marks approach, and I find that I need that additional bit of structure. Alternating between questions and answers, using my energy as a guide, keeps my ideas flowing, while providing lots of opportunity for discovery and surprise.

Though I developed the Spiral Method for myself, I’d be delighted to find that it works for you, too. I’d be even more delighted to learn how you’re using it.

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