Seeing a piece as a whole pays off at different stages of the writing process. To pitch an Idea, you may need a sharable plan of what you intend to do. Sometimes you want a larger view to focus your Gathering. By definition, the Organizing stage consists of envisioning the whole thing. And you need a way to see the entire forest if you get lost in Drafting or Revising. (Teams of corporate writers hire me to straighten out documents they can no longer see.)
The devices for seeing whole range from one sentence to complex systems. The simplest involves answering this magic question in one clear sentence: “What’s this about?” For example, “Building a 37-foot fence in a day and a half will make you feel old, especially if you are.” It helps to read your “about” statement to someone smart and pay attention to what she doesn’t understand.
Most of us hated being taught to outline in school, so let’s rename “outline” to “plan.” Plans in outline form allow us to group and rank important items, like this:
If you’re the kind of person who makes lists of things to do, writing a plan will help you organize before you type. But plans don’t help people who have to type to discover what they think, unless they’re trying to make sense of a mountain of Drafting. Plans help when explaining or selling a project, such as a book, to another person. A table of contents or list of chapters is a plan.
You can write plans, not in outline form, but as a paragraph. If you can write down what you want to say in four sentences, you probably understand the structure and can explain it. Another version, much favored by copyeditors for their own writing, involves jotting down a headline and subheads, essentially answering two key questions: “What’s this about, and what are the sections?”
Some people use “storyboards” to see the whole spread. In movie and video production, you lay out a wall of drawings of scenes with labels, so you can see and change the flow. To see samples of this technique, search for “storyboard” on Google.
In her excellent book, Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara devises a writerly sort of storyboarding: “It is helpful to see the book visually. Jot a brief description of each event in the story on a piece of paper or index card, then lay the cards out on the floor in the order you think they go in.” You can see the whole project in one glance, and move the cards around to try out different structures without rewriting. One hazard, though, as Lara says, “Tell your family not to walk on your cards, or, if you’re married to my husband, not to put them into a neat pile.”
You can also map out a project, not just to see the structure, but also to see relationships.
The device you select to see the big picture depends on how you think, and what works for you. The real secret to seeing whole is taking a long and thorough break. You couldn’t see it because you were too close. Or fed up.