Unless you are writing for pure exploration, it’s generally important to have in mind a main idea.
However, a common misconception is that your main idea needs to be fixed and rigid, like a box. Only the things that fit inside the box can be put there. Everything else gets edited away. You may write this way because you want things to be neat and tidy, always on topic, always correct.
If we’re sorting objects, maybe that rigidly focused approach works fine. But we’re writing, and that means engaging creativity. No matter how apparently uncreative any given writing project might seem, it’s still beneficial to allow yourself to be open and receptive.
A different mental model can help make that happen.
Instead of a box, it is far more powerful to regard your main idea like the trunk of a tree. Just as a tree has branches that head off in all directions, your main idea wants to branch outward. All the limbs are connected to the tree, but each one can be completely different.
It’s a small shift, yet the impact from holding this different mental model for your topic exploration process can be profound.
As you write, allow yourself to hold in the background of your mind the totality of the tree. When you write, you only have to attend to whatever branch happens to be there for you at the moment. Since you can easily feel how it is connected to the central trunk, you can flow onward to a different branch as needed.
Generally people cut their creativity short by believing “That’s my topic. I need to put a box around it. I can’t go outside the box.”
Instead, think of the topic as a thing to circle around. You can swing far and wide. Let yourself depart elsewhere and weave back toward the main ideas.
In the extreme, when you go off-topic it might seem like you are wasting your time. Maybe you find that you just wrote a sentence about your cat in an essay that’s supposed to be about the best way to stack lumber. Yeah, that seems off topic. But precisely, I’m saying that’s a sign you’re doing it right.
Why getting off topic is a healthy part of the process
Sometimes things just need to be… expressed. Here, I’m inviting you to think of expression in two senses
- An emotion or some bit of noisy data that just needs to be let out. Once it’s out, you can get to what’s beneath.
- You can also use the word “express” to speak of what a wound, boil or pustule needs to have done. You feel a sense of pressure because something needs to be “expressed.” Gross? Well, exactly. You don’t want to walk around carrying that stuff in your mind, do you?
Things need to be expressed so that you don’t block yourself. When you let everything flow, you can get to the stuff that’s underneath. The best ideas are often obscured by noise. Let the noise pass and then see what emerges.
Too often, writers block themselves. They do nothing as a way of doing something. Click To Tweet
They take only small steps as a placeholder for doing what can really make the difference in their life. They insist that if something doesn’t fit their current model, they can’t do it.
I want a world more full of writers who deeply love what they are doing. Writers with perspective. Writers who can stay in the big picture even when the stuff in the present moment might seem off-topic. Writers who make use of “open focus.”
How to apply open focus when writing
There are basically two aspects of it
- A specific focus in the foreground
- Peripheral vision, a sense of perspective, possibility, potential and an ability to navigate any concept.
In more detail, these aspects are:
- keep focus, write without stopping. Stay with where you are and where you want to go. Maybe it seems like you get closer to your central topic, and maybe it seems like you veer off. Just stay present and keep writing.
- be open. Let things flow, let them go. Stay in the creative mode. No editing or looking back. No worries about the results of your efforts. Be open to seeing things fresh or from a completely new angle. Try to see things from any angle. Be experimental. Prod yourself, prod your topic. What happens when I rephrase what I just wrote in the active voice? What happens when I write the same thing again and again? What happens when I order that list rather than separate the main ideas of that sentence into an ordered list? What does that feel like? What else is happening?
Even a little of this can go a long way towards becoming a more free and empowered writer. On the one hand you have the sense of ownership of your topic. On the other hand, you have complete freedom about what you say and how you say it. The ramifications are beautiful.