Better Writing: The Longest Way ‘Round

Jun 29, 2021 | Better Writing

One of my elementary school readers had a story titled “The Longest Way Around Is Sometimes the Shortest Way Home.” That story comes to mind when I read advice about how to write an article or report by a specific deadline.

Most of the advice divides the work into two distinct blocks. The first block is preparation. You’re supposed to do all your research and thinking about what the piece will look like before you start writing. Then comes writing and revision.

After 50 years of writing, studying the writing process, and coaching authors, I prefer a different way. It works with your brain’s strengths. Many writers use the same process. Both Peter Drucker and Clayton Christensen used it. It may seem like it will take you more time, but it’s truly the shortest way to a great piece.

Determine how long it will take you to write once you’re fully prepared. There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Abe Lincoln. Abe supposedly said that if he had six hours to chop down a tree, he’d spend four of those hours sharpening his axe. Abe never said that, but the proportion’s about right.

Plan for one-third of the time at the end of your process for writing and revision. Set a start date for writing. That will leave you two-thirds of your total time for preparation. Here’s how you can go with the flow and let your brain help you do a better job.

Think, But Not Too Hard

The first thing to do is start collecting ideas. Do some research. Talk to people who can increase your store of knowledge and point you to experts and trusted sources.

Play with the ideas. Sketch them on something like a mind map. Write snippets of how you could present them.

Resist the urge to outline. Outlining at this stage can create problems. Outlines are heavy on “points” so you’re likely to miss important research and stories. Outlines freeze the order of presentation which can give you problems later.

Just Write It, But Not the First Draft

The next step is to write the zero draft of your article. The zero draft is the one that comes before the first draft. It helps you spot what’s missing and help you understand how your piece should flow.

Start writing from start to finish. Don’t stop to research or to confirm things. Don’t stop to ponder problems in organization or word choice. Make notes about the issues and keep going.

When you write a zero draft, your brain pulls up ideas that you didn’t know you had. You’ll also learn what you don’t know and what you need to research. You’ll spot organizational issues. You’ll understand how the piece should flow.

Give It a Rest, But Not Completely

When you complete the zero draft, it’s time to quit the intensive work and let your default mode network help you. The default mode network (DMN) is parts of the brain that operate at low levels of energy in the background while we’re doing intense, conscious work. But the DMN lights up when we’re awake but not engaged in any specific mental exercise. The DMN is the part of your brain that throws up ideas while you’re doing something else.

Adam Grant has referred to this part of the process as “strategic procrastination.” You’re not working steadily and consciously on your project, so it may seem like you’re wasting time. But you’re not.

You’ll get ideas and insights about your project. Capture them. Write them down or record them on a small digital recorder. All your ideas, drafts, and stuff should go in a single file.

Spend about 15 minutes a day on your project. At the end of the day is a good time. You can review the insights that you’ve got and put them in a file. While you do that, think about new ideas you can have, review your zero draft, play with the ideas you’ve got.

Now, Write and Revise

When you get to your start writing date, it’s time to start writing. Clever, huh?

Use an outline if you choose. Use a mind map if that’s better for you. Use a major scene draft. It doesn’t matter if it’s a method you’re comfortable with.

Remember that all first drafts are crap. No matter how much good thinking, great ideas, and deep research you’ve done, your first draft will still be crap. Plan on at least two revisions.


Give your brain space to help you.

Play with your ideas.

Write a zero draft.

Put your default mode network to work.

Touch your project every day.

Use a third of your total project time to write and revise.

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