dump it out, just type, let you're telling a story in your head. tell it to someone. make it conversational. Not bullets, never bullet.s
I hate saying this because it's the cliche advice that every "writing guy" grift on twitter says. Everyone who tweets too many threads, separates all their tweets into separate lines, and repackages the same three ideas into inane cliche that thousands of people like, like canned advice from self-help cons. It lands, because it sounds clever, because it's punchy, and because it feels just so possible. Most of it is trash. But on this one idea, it regrettably works.
once you do this, the thing you'll have will be terrible. it's won't be well written; it won't be coherent. It'll just be some ideas. But, because you did it in prose and not bullets, you'll finish with ideas that are more formed than you started. You might've landed on a punchy phrase, or found some connection between ideas that you didn't see. The internal conversation you had with yourself will take you down some paths you didn't expect. Surrender to that (surrender to that air, and you can ride it).
I usually do this part in one or two sittings, each one taking 15 to 30 minutes. It happens fast, because it's like having a conversation about the idea, which you'd do pretty quickly if it were in person. I also do it in a plain text editor. Some people do this to minimize distractions; that doesn't really work for me; I still constantly cmd tab to slack no chrome no spotify no slack no chrome no slack no spotify no slack no back to the text editor. But, the editor does free me of wanting to make it perfect. There's no spell check. There's no formatting. It's just having a conversation with myself, letting that go, and seeing what comes out.
If I have ideas that don't fit into the story - oh, yeah, this thought is interesting but not sure where it goes - I'll create a small list at the bottom.
When I've roughly exhaused the idea (I'd guess it's usually about 750 to 1000 words or so?), I stop and walk away from the thing. Not really to get it out of my head, but to reset my narrative. Whatever I wrote has some narrative structure to it; some story I tried to tell. Sometimes that story works; usually, it doesn't. Typically, away from the paper, I then think through the whole thing, and try to decide the narrative studs. What's the hook? Then what idea? Then what? Then what?
Once I have parts of this in my head, I return to my text doc, and start typing this at the top. In this case, it's usually bullets, but that's only to keep me from typing too much, and to keep the sentences short. It's not to make a proper outline. Not too many bullets (usually, 10 or so). No subbullets, whatever you do, no subbullets. At this point, I'm just taking the first pass of ideas and turning it into something with more of narrative.
Critically, this isn't a summary of the narrative you just wrote. That was just for the ideas. Rewrite the narrative studs. Sometimes, the first draft works. Sometimes, it's terrible. But don't mimic that draft. Do this short list anew, with those ideas in your head but not that narrative.
Then, start rewriting the whole thing following the narrative you've outlined. Draw from the original dump of ideas, but don't copy and paste from it. Never copy and paste. Retype everything, with a fresh eye, tell the story again, around the structure of the bullets, and make a pass at cleaning up your language.
As I'm doing this, I delete the original paragraphs as I rewrite them. I usually delete them sentence by sentence, thought by thought. If some ideas didn't make it to the new version, I'll take the sentences (the original ones from the paragraph) and add it to the list of assorted ideas at the bottom.
Usually, during this process, I copy the work from a plain text editor into a Google Doc. In the re-writes, I try to clean things up. I'll linger on paragraphs, trying to get the language right. It's rarely final, but it's usually closer.
In this part, sometimes you'll find that the narrative bullets you wrote don't work. Adding real paragraphs around them breaks down the flow you thought you had. Ideas don't connect. The outline doesn't hold up under the weight of actual text. At this point, you've got to work through this, and rejigger the flow if you can't make it connect. During this period, the flow doesn't need to be perfect, but some gaps are too big to bridge. You have to develop a bit of a feel for what those gaps are, and which ones you need to correct sooner rather than later.
The darkest moments are in this phase. It's when everything feels like a mess. Nothing has really come together, the good ideas don't always connect, and it feels a really long way from being something that's suitable for human consumption. If moments of panic ever set in, it's here.
Eventually, as you're writing it, it'll start to come take some shape. Ideas you like will turn into paragraphs you like, which will turn into sections you like. You’ll figure out the tone of the piece; is it long and melodramatic, short and punchy, serious, jokey, you find it in this part. Not all at once, usually, though some pieces come faster than others. But at this point, you probably have a skeleton. And once you have that, you're on the other side of the hill. Cleaning it up is work, it's always work, everything is work. But it feels like progress.
It's also the point where it can start to be more fun, at least for me. You're crafting phrases, refining bits of jokes, making the words read and sound a way that you like.
This process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. This is the point when I find it useful to walk away. I can't write an entire piece in my head on a walk, but there are some things where a walk is the perfect solution. If you're looking for a paragraph to work through, get the idea in your head and walk with it, until you find the turn that solves it. Once you do, write it down (on your phone, sometimes), and move on.
During this phase, you'll start to like it. It'll feel hopeful. You'll have sections that you think are good. You'll have clunky parts you hate, and won't know the title, or how to finish it, but keep going through this process, and you get there.
And then, read it again. And again. And again. The mood sours again. You'll be sick of it. But you have to keep sanding it, with sandpaper of progressively finer grain.
At this point, the best advice is from jia tolentio: get it to where you can stand it. Get it to where you like it. This is the final awful phase, when you're tired of it and you want to be done.
Sometimes you'll have to cut things. I don't think cutting ruthlessly is always right. Fun ideas that you like that are extraneous can be ok. Fun things are fun, and readers find them fun. So don't be too ruthless, don't cut the fun.
And sometimes, flows won't work. This paragraph just never sits right here. In those cases, move it. Don't be afraid of big edits late in the process. It almost certainly makes it better, and it's usually less work than it feels like to rework it. I have this philosophy that if it doesn't work and you try to make it work, the key probably doesn't fit.
I check wordcounts throughout. It's useful to keep some gauge of length, and know when you're hitting limits for what's useful (typically, 2000 words is about that limit). but it's also pyschological. If i see that after my word dump I'm a length close to the final length of the piece, it feels good, like I'm making real progress. yes, it all has to be rewritten, but there's something much less intimidating about knowing you've already done this.