Herky Jerky Writing

by Dan Walsh

A breakthrough writing process.

I never liked writing outlines in school. I enjoyed essays, for the most part, but found outlines to be cumbersome and slow. I preferred a more free-form organic style of writing. Instead of being locked into a rigid outline, I let the topic take me wherever it wanted to go. I saw the first cracks in this method during college. Essay topics became more complicated and they required planning to lead the reader through the arguments of a complex thesis. My ability to craft these arguments was severely limited by my inability to plan out my main points and string them together. This undeveloped skill has continued to make writing about complex topics difficult for me, but I think I finally discovered a method that will help. I need a better name for it, but for now I call it the Herky Jerky Writing Method. Catchy huh?

Let me start by saying that I see the immense benefit in outlining a complex piece of writing. There needs to be a plan, even if it’s loose. My problem is often that I don’t quite know what I want to say until I start writing, so creating an outline ahead of time doesn’t help. But writing in this way is like wandering into the woods without a compass or map. I meander around, get lost in the words or a pretty turn of phrase, follow a newly discovered path and then end up exiting the forest by the south side instead of the east – completely missing my mark.

Sometimes this meandering is ok because it helps me discover new ideas. But other times it’s a huge headache because I can’t actually make the point I was trying to make. It’s insanely frustrating. I get stuck in the individual words and then the flow suffers because I lose my train of thought. It takes too long to get to the next point, and by then I’ve lost whatever it was I wanted to say. This breaks up any kind of cohesive flow from point to point within my writing and is exactly what an outline should help prevent. Enter the Herky Jerky Method.

My Herky Jerky Method is a combination of outlining and my natural tendency to discover what I actually want to say as I’m writing. Instead of planning the point-by-point progression ahead of time, I start writing and record the main points as they occur to me. I build the outline as I go. Like those old Loony Toons cartoons, I lay the tracks just in time for the steam engine to rollover them. My train of thought is loose, unconnected, and incomplete. But that doesn’t matter because the ideas are free to flow forth. I might be writing my opening paragraph and have an idea pop into my head for a point I need to make much later in the essay. Instead of fighting this tendency and trying to stick with my opener, I jump down the page to wherever I think this new idea will fit, and drop it in.

In this manner, I don’t get lost in the words or phrases and I don’t forget the ways in which an argument should progress. I record my thoughts as quickly as they occur to me.  Thoughts, sentences, and paragraphs aren’t sacred. They don’t need to be complete for me to move on to the next idea. If I’m only halfway through Sentence A but I hear in my head the exact composition for Sentence B, I forget about the rest of Sentence A and write down all of Sentence B. I worry about bridging the two sentences together later.

I jump to wherever my mind takes me and place the ideas or words in more or less the correct place. Sometimes all I have is a word, sometimes it’s a whole paragraph. By the time I’m done, I’ve made all the points I need to make. I’ve crafted the entire flow of ideas, but there is one problem. It isn’t intelligible to anyone but me. It’s like shorthand notes of the topic. At this point I start filling in the holes between ideas. I’ve already made the connections in my head so tying the ideas together on paper is easy.

This filling in phase also acts as a solid edit. I catch my typos and misused homonyms. I create more variety in my word usage and sentence length. I also use this time to lookup and replace placeholder words or things like “…”, and “[emotion]” with the words I wanted in the moment but couldn’t think of quickly enough.

To put it succinctly, the Herky Jerky Method consists of writing down incomplete thoughts as soon as they occur and in the rough order in which I think they’ll appear in the finished work. I move as quickly as possible so I don’t forget connecting ideas or the perfect way to phrase something. I don’t slow down for grammar, misspellings, or my inability to think of the right word or turn the perfect phrase. I separate the fast thinking and ideation process from the slower self-editing process. Once the shorthand version of whatever I wanted to say is written, I go back and fill in the holes so my writing doesn’t sound like an insane person wrote it.

I wonder if this is the “shitty first draft” method that Anne Lamott talks about in her book Bird by Bird. It also sounds like Joe Sugarman’s advertising writing method. “In that first draft the goal is to put something—anything— on paper, the emotional outpouring of everything you are trying to convey about your product or service.” Regardless, this has been an epiphany for me. I wonder if this could also work for fiction writing.

To understand what my initial Herky Jerky outline looks like, and how I fill in the gaps afterwords, the early outline of this article is below.


———- Original Herky Jerky Outline ———-

Never liked writing outlines in school

I see the value though, but high level blocking out doesn’t work for me. Too cold and it doesn’t seem to translate when I’m writing.

At the same time, I constantly struggle with the flow of ideas in my writing. The same thing that an outline should help with. I get stuck in the individual words and then the flow suffers because i loose my train of thought. It takes to long to get to the next point, and by then I’ve lost it.

I had a breakthrough… herky jerky outlines. The flow.

I probably need a better name for it, but this is what it looks like: train of thought, incomplete, unconnected.

What’s the summation?

Write quickly so nothing gets lost. One word, a short phrase or even a whole paragraph is fine. But if your mind jumps away from the topic on hand, don’t fight it. Just jump down to wherever it feels like that idea should go and capture that little note before you forget. I don’t edit until after. I have to go back in and fill up the holes anyway, so it’s a perfect time to correct grammar, create more variety in my word usage, or replace that placeholder word I dropped in for that perfect word I couldn’t think of in the moment.

I get down the quick words and ideas that jump into my head and then go back and edit. Is this the shitty first draft Anne L talked about? Sugarman wrote about something similar as well. It feels like an epiphany.