Structure and creativity appear, on the surface, to be mutually exclusive concepts–especially when it comes to an art form like writing. In fact, writers will typically describe their writing process as either being of a structured nature or more free form, where they write based on whatever whim comes to them. I’d like to propose–and in doing so, perhaps arm you with a new writing strategy–that both concepts can happily co-exist in the same writing process.
I tend to be more structured by nature–every T crossed, and every I dotted. Maybe that’s why I prefer nonfiction over fiction and why I like to edit. But I’ve also discovered along the way that structure needs to be infused with writing chaos from time to time. Let me explain…
Take outlines, for example. I love outlines! Many people hate them, and I can easily see why. But for me, especially when it comes to nonfiction–but even for fiction–outlines keep me on track. I like having a road map of sorts to know where my writing is taking me. But, then again, when you’re on a road trip, isn’t it the detours along the way to try some authentic local food or to see the World’s Biggest Ball of Yarn that make the trip fun and adventurous? Of course! And it’s no different in writing.
If you’re too structured, an outline can serve as a prison, never allowing you outside of its walls. I’ve learned to use an outline instead as a launching pad of ideas. I give myself permission to wander outside its framework and take the occasional detour. I’ve learned that by doing so, I may just discover some treasures along the way.
One example of this is when I once wrote an article for a children’s magazine comparing and contrasting a couple of sea creatures. My research took me way off the beaten path of where my outline said I was supposed to go, but the information I gathered was so rich and deep, that I ended up changing the entire angle of my article to incorporate my fascinating discovery!
It’s important, however, to not lose sight of the main road you were on after you take your detours. Just like on a real road trip, you have to eventually get back on course with your writing or you will find yourself completely rewriting your story (Perhaps in some cases, this might be a good thing!). Although I reworked the premise for my article, I still incorporated the majority of my outline points. They just ended up being arranged differently from what I had first purposed.
Another example of structure coexisting with creativity is in the flow of ideas. Even if you don’t write out an outline, chances are you have in your head how your story or nonfiction piece is to be ordered. For fiction, some write from a plot-driven perspective, where they know the order of events that need to take place and then build their characters and scenes around these events. For nonfiction, ordering might mean writing out all your main points, incorporating your subpoints, then adding your introduction and conclusion.
Instead, what if you began your fiction piece with the area(s) of conflict and worked outwardly? You may not even have a story yet, but if you have a great idea for a conflict point, use that to build your story around. And, for nonfiction, try allowing your ordering to be born from your writing itself. Again, follow some of those idea detours. You may end up scrapping some of your points in favor of others.
On the flip side of adding creativity to structure is to add structure and form to creativity. Many writers have the opposite problem that I have, which is that they will write whatever pops into their head, no matter how random or disconnected it may be. My advice to these writers is to take those random thoughts and jot them down, but don’t pursue them immediately. After you gather a collection of them, see if you recognize a pattern or theme that can be attached to these ideas. Corral them under one heading, and the ones that don’t fit, toss them out.
Then, go back through them, identifying those that are worth developing. From these ideas, build a loose framework. Once you have a general sketch of where you’re headed, brainstorm some more and continue the process of writing down, combining, and eliminating ideas. Now, instead of having random thoughts going in several different directions, you have collections of random thoughts all headed down the same road!
So, which are you in your writing process–structured or creative? Hopefully, this article has inspired you to be structurally creative–the best of both!