Friday, October 14, 2011

The Power of Breaking Things Down

I often undervalue what I'm able to accomplish as a person, and I think I've figured out why over the years. It's because I often employ a super power that I didn't realize was a super power. That is, I use the power of breaking things down.

The power of breaking things down can be mastered by anyone.

By breaking things down, I don't mean that I'm a really good dancer or especially skilled at beat-boxing. Instead, I'm pretty good at breaking big things (projects, ideas, etc.) down into smaller things (tasks, specifics, etc.).

Since I often tend to break things down without thinking about it, I don't realize that I'm doing anything special. It also can cause confusion--on my part--when others get psyched out by tasks that look relatively simple (to me).

Anyway, I think this power can be taught, learned, practiced, and mastered. Once a person figures out how to break big (impossible) things down into small (manageable) things, the world becomes a much easier place to conquer.

Breaking up travel
The concept of breaking up my travel actually started in high school when I ran cross country. At that age, I'd regularly go on runs of 5 to 10 miles at a time, and it could get mind numbing. In fact, most long distance runners can probably agree that 90% of running performance is done in the head.

So to make these more manageable, I would focus less on how mile markers or finish lines and more on upcoming landmarks, whether it was a tree or a street sign or the next bend on a trail. Not only did this strategy make my runs easier to handle mentally, it also often produced faster times in which I was running in short sections.

Now that I'm in a position in which I do several long road trips every year, I employ this same strategy to my drives. Though I don't use upcoming landmarks (because cars move slightly faster than my high school mile pace), I do break trips up by cities and state lines.

For instance, when I travel from Georgia to Ohio, I don't think about getting to Cincinnati when I leave Atlanta. Instead, I focus on Chattanooga, and then, Knoxville.

Breaking up work
When I take on a huge project like handling Writer's Market, I don't intimidate myself with the fact that I have to compile and edit more than 1,000 pages of material. No, I chunk it up into manageable sections (see image above).

The book is divided into articles and market listings, but I break it up even more than that. The articles are broken into a few smaller sections, as are the listings. In fact, a few listing sections are even broken into sub-sections. I don't worry about the overall project until I've attacked all the smaller pieces.

This concept can be applied to other forms of work too, including house work. When I clean the house, it's a room-by-room process. When a room has more than one trouble area, I'll even break the room into sections.

But does it work for writing?
Of course, the answer is yes. If a poet wants to write a collection of poems, he or she should focus on writing the poems before worrying about the collection. If a prose writer (fiction or nonfiction) wants to write a book, then they should use an outline.

Outlines provide the skeleton of the book and help give a writer focus. They also make it fairly easy for a writer to see how to break up the big project of a book-length work into smaller manageable chunks.

Outlines won't help you write better, but they will help you finish your project. Then, you can go back through and revise and submit and make the bestsellers lists and credit this blog post with helping you become super duper successful and amazing.

If it sounds easy enough, then get at it!


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Leigh M. Lane said...

Great advice.

I'm a big advocate for outlines. Although one might need to revise as one goes (as the muses tend to ignore parts of any good outline and set the author on detours) a book without an outline is more likely to suffer structurally.

Sometimes, I'll make secondary outlines for the next few chapters I plan on writing. It can help to have a step by step chapter "guide" to refer to when writing especially complex themes.

Jess said...

Come on! You don't beat-box?

Seriously, though, that line made me laugh out loud...and not laugh out loud as in lol. No, I literally laughed out loud; I did not do the whole I-will-write-lol-because-i-can't-write-ssisw-which-means-slightly-smile-in-a-snarky-way-because-no-one-will understand-it thing.

Oh, I should probably mention that I did, in fact, ssisw when you talked about your "super" power.

MC said...

I love outlines; I would outline everything if wasn't eccentric. Oh well. Never the less everything can be broken down. Like they say, you eat an elephant one bite at a time.

Anonymous said...

"Outlines won't help you write better, but they will help you finish your project. "

Great advice, except...I have to disagree with the first half of this statement. I think outlines do help you write better. The focus that they provide is invaluable. And outline allows a writer to see the big picture and focus less on what is going to happen and more on how it happens. On the writing and the journey of their characters. I know from experience that when I don't outline I am a lot more scattered. My research is incomplete and details get sketchy.
It boils down to exactly what you learned running cross-country. Breaking a story up into manageable bits allows to to focus more on your performance for each part.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Gladelf, I agree that outlines can help improve writing, because it improves focus and make it to the finish line (a finished story often being better than an unfinished one). However, I know when I first started writing with outlines, I fell into the trap of just connecting the dots (or plot points) without making it super interesting.