Tag Archives: mindmaps

From the archives: In Praise of Zero Drafts


Photo courtesy SXC.

Today’s post is a repeat of a popular post from last August related to the joys of drafts that precede the actual structuring of a nonfiction story. Enjoy!

In Praise of Zero Drafts

I’ve been told by freelance writers, when I describe to them my approach to writing, that I write like an editor. Perhaps I do.

One time I was comparing notes with one of my writers, and she told me that producing copy is never an issue for her—but she chokes on editing her own work, to the point that she hires an editor friend to polish her work before she submits it for publication. I, on the other hand, typically have to squeeze out my first draft. But once I have something out on paper, I can edit, rearrange and manipulate the content to my heart’s content—with my own writing, I feel that everything is negotiable once I have a draft to play with.

If you tend to choke on producing early drafts, learning how to write a “zero draft” may be a path out of writer’s block. A zero draft is what you write before you write the rough draft. It’s a no-structure, no-holds-barred, no-one-is-gonna-see-this brain-dump that lets you exorcise the demons (or angels) of this particular story, so you can see what you have and begin structuring your material. It’s the functional equivalent to dumping a box of Legos out on a table to see how many pieces (and what kind) you have before you begin building something.

In their amazing work, “Coaching Writers,” Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry recommend that newsroom editors working with writers who can’t figure out where to begin their stories to write a zero draft in the form of a short note to the editor, describing what information they gathered during their field reporting. The technique gets the focus off wrestling with the structure of the story, and pours it into a format that everyone understands—the personal letter.

For example,

“Dear Liz,

I went to report at the Democratic National Convention, but got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam. I stepped out of my car and talked to Denver commuters about how the convention is impacting their city. Some people loved it and the money it was bringing in, some people hated how it brought the traffic and city services to a screeching halt, but everyone had an opinion about what a mega-event like this one does to a city the size of Denver. By the time I got to the convention, I felt as if this was the story, and not what was going on at the convention center.

Sincerely, A. Writer.”

In just a few sentences, our writer has identified a story line, key points of interest (perhaps useful in the lead or nut graph) and even a bit of a tentative structure (perhaps point-counterpoint, or issue-by-issue debates on the impact of the event?). If he or she had been trying to cook up a great first-person sight-and-sound lead, he/she might have lost track of the other details, or how they would support the flow of the story once their lead anecdote was over.

Another zero draft technique, as I alluded to earlier, is the brain-dump. This could be a list of anecdotes, facts, quotes, descriptions, etc., that you found gripping or which you can’t get out of your head in relation to your story. Do not try to write a lead, a nut graph or transitions that will survive into the rough draft. Just get what you know on paper.

Put your zero draft away long enough to do a load of laundry, mow the yard, drink a beer—whatever—then come back to it. You need time away to let your brain work on the structural part subconsciously. When you’re ready, review your draft, circling repeating patterns, good bits of description or exposition, information that naturally works as a transition, belongs in the lead, etc. You can use your notes on the zero draft to create an outline/mindmap/storyboard for the piece, or you can just refer to it as you do your first real draft—since now have now made your thinking visible, you can sculpt it to serve the needs of your assignment.

Another technique that can get you over the what-to-write hump is known as “scaffolding.” This is useful when you have a pretty good idea what to say but you’re not as sure where to jump into the story. Roy Peter Clark discussed how he used the scaffolding technique recently to write an article about the late Tim Russert; it’s a great way to acknowledge that your story will change from draft to draft, and to write your way into the story.

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Writing Crap & Shitty First Drafts

English professor and writing teacher Elizabeth Kleinfeld holds forth about the benefits of a zero draft on her revisionspiral blog.

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing

Another take on zero drafts, from the perspective of academic writing.

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft

This brief article, posted at uliveandlearn.com, shows some ways you can use analog paper-based methods to repurpose your zero draft as a story map or visual outline of your work.

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Write This Way: Writing and Editing Links for December 3, 2008


Photo courtesy SXC.

Our monthly hyperlink love-fest has information on using mindmapping to organize writing assignments and writing workload, a challenge to fail faster in your writing work (in order to ultimately succeed), and a site dedicated to helping beat reporters make the most of online social media. Plus a handful of bonus links designed to pique your curiosity as a writer!

1. First, since one of the most popular posts on this blog so far has been 3 cool tools for mapping story ideas, so perhaps it’s no surprise that in the last week or two, there have been at least two good posts related to using mindmaps to manage workflow and organize one’s work.

At FreelanceSwitch, Raj Dash posted an entry on managing multiple freelance gigs with mind maps. The post discusses how to map out daily tasks, both billable ones and tasks that lead to billable work, and keep yourself in a productive, not stressed-out mode. The method is a little involved, but it may provide you with the oomph your freelancing needs to be profitable.

Meanwhile, over at Write to Done, Chief Editor Mary Jaksch recently posted on how to use mind maps as a “genius tool” for writers. She lists several different ways in which the mapping technique can help writers work smarter:

“A mind map is a great way to keep track of a project. It allows you to get a mental screenshot of where the project is at. As a project slowly matures, all completed files can be attached to the map.

“Complex projects always have many different lines of development to follow. A mind map can hold all of these different streams at one glance. For example, if you wanted to start a new blog, you would need to keep track of creating a brand, designing a logo, choosing a platform, creating content, designing a website, setting and launching the blog, and so on. A mind map can hold all these different planning streams.”

Jaksch gives tips on what to look for in an online mindmapping progam, as well, and gives her opinion on several commonly used packages. Together, her post and Raj’s at FreelanceSwitch complement each other nicely.

2. Are you timid about putting your ideas out there for editors to examine? Jenny Cromie at The Golden Pencil blog recently began a contest for readers through the end of the year that she calls the Rejection Letter Olympics.

Every Friday, Jenny posts themes and ideas for contestants, and they send out as many query letters and letters of introduction as they can. Points are awarded for rejections, yes, as well as assignments. As Jenny explains it,

“I’m basing this weekly challenge on the very sage advice of Thomas Watson, founder of IBM: ‘If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.’

“…Someone early on in my freelance career told me that every no gets you closer to a yes…I am setting up this challenge to reward you for sticking your freelance neck out there and risking rejection. Because eventually (possibly much sooner than you think) you will get a yes.”

Kudos to Jenny for rewarding risk-taking!

3. If you’re a newspaper reporter, or care about the fate of journalism, take a look at BeatBlogging.org. The blog, which is a creation of NewAssignment.net, that examines how beat reporters can use social networking and other Web tools to improve their stories.

What separates this site from many others on the online journalism front is its unwavering focus on beat reporting, and the blog’s almost daily provision of real-world examples from reporters who are using social media (Twitter, blogs, etc.) to enrich their work. It has a “Leaderboard” comprised of these exemplary reporters, who are nominated by readers.

The site is a great resource for anyone who wants to keep tabs on the latest trends in reporting in today’s Web 2.0 environment.

Bonus links!

One Sentence: True stories, told in one sentence

Timeline of Online Journalism Milestones

How to Find Expert Sources and Real People to Interview for Articles

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