One process seldom discussed can determine the speed and success of a writing project. How do you move from acceptance of an idea to gathering material to write it?
Since you have not done much if any gathering yet, everything in this stage must remain tentative. The magic question “What’s this about?” becomes “What’s this likely to be about?”
You can think of the Gathering stage as not only accumulating information, but also achieving focus. The idea sharpens up as you learn things, and what you learn as you go along leads to increased clarity and more directed Gathering. Suddenly, you realize you’ve got what you need, and you can move to the next step: Organizing.
To develop an idea, you need a few things that create a Gathering plan:
1. What documentary sources do I need, and which ones do I need first?
2. Which people do I need to talk to, and in what order?
3. Who can lay out the ground for me and suggest sources, i.e., who’s my Pathfinder?
4. Who is actually involved in what I’m writing about, i.e., the Actors?
5. Who are the commentators who can supply context and interpretation later?
6. Who has a stake in these issues?
7. Who will read this piece, and what can I assume they know?
8. What visuals (photos, graphics, charts, etc.) might help my reader?
9. What’s my target length and my deadline?
10. And the magic question: What’s this likely to be about?
All this planning may sound like overkill if you’re writing, for example, a short piece on Valentine cookies, with two recipes. You don’t need a pathfinder or a commentator, but you might want an actor, someone actually doing the baking. You also need someone to test the recipes to make sure they work. And you’ll need a couple of photos. If the cookies have tricky folds, you might need a diagram. Knowing all that makes Gathering quick.
Or suppose you’re writing a book over a period of years. You need more detailed answers to those questions, but remember where you are in the writing process, at the beginning of Gathering. As you gain information and understanding, the list of what you need will change and grow. That’s the fun of writing books.
Let’s take the opposite case: 4:11 p.m., cover a fire at the corner of 7th Street and Poinsettia Avenue, deadline 5:30! You obviously don’t have time for planning. Well, you do, because first you have to get to 7th and Poinsettia, and you use the transit time to think out what you need to gather. Television crews do this kind of tactical planning every time, with the reporter and the photographer rehearsing what they expect to find and do. That’s why they’re so fast.
All this is planner thinking. Some writers prefer just to plunge right in, making phone calls and letting things develop. If you have lots of time, just plunging in can work. You can recoup from false starts. But such plunging around is slower and more likely to miss important things. The kind of questions asked above don’t take long; in fact, you keep asking them all the way through Gathering. They give you confidence that you know what you’re after, and you’ll know when you’ve got it.
People who think about what they’re doing as they do it, do it better.