Talking it Out: With Experts

Back in April, I posted about my rejection of the the old “don’t-talk-about-your-book” bromide. Recently, Nik Riptrazone took up the subject again over at The Millions, which rekindled my interest in the core ideas of that post. I also wanted to push a few of those ideas along.

Riptrazone’s post represents one of the most common beliefs about creative process, namely that it’s primarily done by lone geniuses. This goes back at least as far as the Romantic poets, but I just don’t buy it. Our creative communities and networks are real, vibrant, and important. Creativity doesn’t flourish in a vacuum.

In his post, Riptrazone describes an encounter with a professor which led to a discussion of writing. As he began talking about a work in progress, the professor held up his hand and said that people should never talk about a book until it hits the shelf, or they’ll kill it. In this essay, and in everything I’ve read on this idea, no one ever describes exactly how talking about your project kills it.

Riptrazone says:

If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

But this doesn’t explain what talking does. When we’re told to cough into our sleeve, it’s obvious how that keeps us from showering the room with tiny, moist, viral droplets. What people have to say about not talking about your work reveals no deleterious process. They only say it’s bad, and it will have bad results. Here’s the thing: a book is supposed to belong to the world. Writing is an act of communication, and as far as communication goes, you can’t do it alone, not without people looking at you funny.

I don’t think you should sequester yourself. Even deliberating juries get to talk to each other. But this isn’t what I want to discuss. The comments sections of the internet have this handled.

I’d like to revisit the idea that conversation, interaction, and sharing are generative. They help us create. More specifically, they help us work around our own patterns and avoid cliché. In the previous post, I focused on using conversation to generate ideas. This time, I’m thinking about how interactions with others is a profound and important way to conduct research.

Normally we see research portrayed as a solitary endeavor: one person against stacks and shelves of information trying to locate the needle in a haystack. With grit, focus, and fortitude the researcher will find lost and forgotten gems of information, notice patterns, and verify important truths. This is how it was presented to me in the research methods course I took for my PhD.

Stills from Call Northside 777 (1948).

But there is another method of research. It is common, but overlooked. In fact, this approach has been maligned by the many in my academic field (revered in others). This is the model of the reporter, detective, or social scientist. Conversation and interaction are primary tools for people who move about in the world asking questions. They get people talking, and then they listen.

The research I do for my fiction involves information I’m often not familiar with, so it’s difficult for me to have a clear sense of the key terms and concepts that would allow me to navigate traditional information systems, even some of the amazing ones given to us by databases and machine learning algorithms. Sometimes I only have a broad and imprecise sense of what I want to know, and I’m looking for a deeper kind of serendipity, one where I only know that there must be something there, but I have no idea what it is, or only the vaguest notion of what it might be.

One of the most complex epistemological sets is the category of “things I know must exist but have not been able to find or identify.”

Conversations with experts has consistently been the best approach for me to positively identify and learn about things I know must exist but don’t know how to find.

As I’ve been drafting my current novel project, I have sought out doctor friends to ask medical questions on their understanding of the physician’s duty of care and their thoughts and feelings on Good Samaritan laws. I’ve taken anthropology professors to lunch to learn about ethics of archeological digs. I asked the president of my university (a former prosecutor) about a complex legal question about how prosecutions work across multiple jurisdictions. And a few days ago, I interviewed a former student with a Master’s Degree from the Glasgow School of Art about the philosophical underpinnings of museum curation.

In order for this particular conversation to proceed, I had to tell Debra about my book: plot basics and some character information. This provided a framework for our discussion of the key principles, epistemologies, and guiding practices of museum curators. I told her one of my characters was a curator, and I needed to learn enough so I could begin some of my own deeper research. I didn’t know enough about museum work to do anything more than skim the surface, which I knew would lead to cliche. She was worried that she wasn’t going to share anything useful, and I assured her that I didn’t know what I wanted her to share, but I would know it the instant she said it.

The conversation was inspiring.


We spent close to an hour going back and forth about the differences between artifacts and specimens, accumulations and collections. We talked about the curatorial impulse and how provenance was everything, that provenance was more important, in some cases than the artifact itself. Once she got going, she starting making the most amazing associations, recalling things she hadn’t prepared, making new connections on the fly. I would ask follow up questions, which took us deeper into unplanned and uncharted territory.

This give and take, which (as I’ve said) involved me talking about my book, was an amazing process. From that conversation, I felt I was finding new and interesting, and most importantly, non-cliche ideas about this book. As a by-product of this exchange, (specifically the part about auction catalogues) I had a revelation about the book’s epilogue. Was I planning an epilogue? No, not until the very point in our conversation when I experienced what I can only call an epiphany.

This entirely brand new idea hit me out of the blue, completely formed, as a result of me not hiding my unfinished book in a hole.

When you are minding your own business, keeping your book on the down low, this kind of thing doesn’t happen much. In the end, I’m of the belief that this taboo against sharing your book is a lot like kidnapping a person and keeping them locked in the basement. Or maybe it’s like those hogs confined to sterile facilities where they fatten unnaturally and can only be kept healthy with constant injections of antibiotics.

It’s okay to share your work and interact with others. Your book isn’t going to disappear if you talk about it or your process, which an organic, evolving thing that needs a nourishing environment in which to thrive. As John Donne wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;


Todd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Imagination vs Observation

“It doesn’t really matter who said it, it’s so obviously true. Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.” — JOHN IRVING

“Write from what you know into what you don’t know.” — GRACE PALEY

As a person who has taught more university writing courses than I care to mention, I regularly hear some version of the following: “Creative writing? Isn’t all writing creative?” That question used to really get my goat, but I’m starting to feel like it’s actually a pretty important one, especially when it triggers thinking about whether the writing is supposed to be about something that happened or if the writing is supposed to be about something that did not.

I am a firm believer in the notion that there is no ex nihilo creation. It’s a very Law of Conservation of Mass kind of perspective, but I don’t think the imagination runs without some kind of fuel, and I think that fuel is experiences. In my life even events that feel a lot like inspiration are more about the miraculous connection of disparate ideas than they are about an idea coming to me out of nowhere.

Imagination is described as the ability to form new ideas, images, or concepts that aren’t present to the senses. Observation is process of perceiving something or someone carefully or in order to gain information or understanding. So, in a lot of ways these are opposite activities. Imagination traffics in what’s not there, while observation deals with what is.

So, to my thinking, writers have to start with an observation, with some kind of phenomena that has been either observed or taken in. Words are always referential, and even though I have experienced the sorcery of having ideas emerge from the act of writing, I have found it impossible to go from zero to words, or to have the words precipitate out of nothing. And still, even though writing begins with an observation in the world, the act of observing things in the world changes them.

Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 8.44.07 AM.png

This concept is common in the scientific world. The physicist Neils Bohr has a marvelous little book from 1934 entitled Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. In his introduction, Bohr discusses the similarities between problems found in the theory of relativity and those found in quantum theory, arguing that in “both cases we are concerned with the recognition of physical laws which lie outside the domain of our ordinary experience and which present difficulties to our accustomed forms of perception.” According to Bohr, these difficulties of perception can be challenging but we can “by no means dispense with those forms of perception which color our whole language and in terms of which all experience must ultimately be expressed.” (5)

Basically we have trouble with perceiving things outside our normal experience and yet we can’t just write off the problems because our language as well as our ability to express anything are affected by perception. In a film class in college I heard this another way. John Greirson, the man who started the National Film Board of Canada once said, “Art isn’t a mirror, it’s a hammer.”

Quantum theory suggests all kinds of problems with observation. We know that observation changes the thing observed. This is a matter for physicists and psychologists. It’s also what made scientific understanding of exactly how a cat purrs to understand. The minute you hook sensors up to cat, it’s done purring. To make matters more complicated, Einstein has famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s difficult to divide out which matter more to the writer, the observation that must come first, or the imagination that shapes and forms the observation.

I’d like to argue that writers often blend imagination and observation together. I’ve noticed that my writing loops back and forth between imagination and observation. I start with some idea for a scene, chapter, or moment in my fiction, and I do my best to imagine it. Even when I feel like I’m making something up from scratch, I’m not. There are always ingredients, and they are always being changed and shaped by what I’m planning to do with them. Nothing is ever neutral.

The process is never linear, and now that I’m this far into my writing life, I can’t recall that distant first observation. In my memory, it has blended to become one thing.


Works Cited

Bohr, Niels. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature: Four Essays with an Introductory Survey. Cambridge UP (1934).


Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Talk it Out

Apparently the first rule of Write Club is “don’t talk about your writing.” Over the years I’ve heard this message from so many people in so many different ways that I’ve come to accept it as a cultural norm in writing communities, and it’s most common in writing workshops.

This injunction can come as a simple charge, like this one from Ray Bradbury.

It can be a more complicated personal narrative about the power of a secret.

Or it can be broad all-inclusive “truthy” assertion like this one from Mark Slouka:

“If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready.” Mark Slouka

My problem is that I don’t agree with any of the above. I am sure there are plenty of people who would rather I don’t talk to them about my writing, but conversation is one of my primary heuristics.

Before I get too far into this line of thinking, let me say that the writing—and by this I mean the actual composing part of it—is something I have to do in solitude; however, I do prefer to work on concepts and planning in my fiction through conversations. I love to riff, argue, spitball, test ideas, hear how they sound, throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks.

I’m sure some of this comes from my background in theater (that was eons ago in high school) and from my improvisation time as a musician gigging in grody Oklahoma college bars. The interplay of ideas that comes from collaboration and impromptu “jamming” turbo-charges my creative process.

The idea that writers only work alone in seclusion never struck a chord with me, and it never really worked when I tried it, even though my graduate creative writing workshops indoctrinated me to the idea that at best it was in bad form to talk about a work in process, and at worst doing this thing would cast a hex upon your work.

I’ve heard all kinds of rationales about the taboo. Some said you can’t talk about a story, it’ll drain your energy. Others said it’ll make it so you no longer have the drive to tell it. Then, it’ll kill the mystery. The magic has to go into the page. Yadda-yadda. All of this fretting made me feel like Ralpie from A Christmas Story having everyone tell him he was going to shoot his eye out.

I was swiftly, deeply, and thoroughly indoctrinated into this world view and went through years of thinking that the way I wanted to do things (talking) was doing it wrong. I was a film major as an undergraduate, so I thought maybe I just didn’t know any better. Associating with them would allow me to learn their mysterious ways.

This isn’t to say that we didn’t talk to each other in graduate school, quite the contrary. You could gossip, kvetch, chew the fat, ruminate, complain, fantasize, chatter, chinwag, yammer, and shoot the breeze, but don’t talk about what you’re writing. You were supposed to just bring it to workshop, the way a cat brings a bird to its people: walk in, open your mouth, drop the thing on the ground, walk away.

Once I was out of school and began to get clear of my programming, I started talking over my projects with my wife. She’s an art teacher and a voracious consumer of audio books. I found that she was the best spitballer in the history of the world. Her literary sensibilities are a sharp two-edged sword for the dividing asunder of the crap ideas from the good ones. She has no dog in the writing hunt, so there was no risk of professional envy or gatekeeping. I could pitch ideas, and she would say, “I like it,” or more often than not just tell me (with no sugar coating), “You can’t do that, everyone will hate it.”

For a long time writing conversations were my secret. I didn’t want other writers to know that I worked this way, until I discovered that George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and Steven Spielberg recorded a spitballing session as they roughed out the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Learning about this and reading through the transcript was absolutely freeing. I was, like, “These guys did made this amazing thing and they did not shoot their eye out!”

I know this is how movies and television get made (I’m a film major, remember), but the myth of the lone novelist was a hard one for me to overcome. It was good for me to learn about this Raiders business, but more importantly, I feel like allowing myself to work collaboratively helped me immensely when I started working with an agent who was sending me notes and working with me select my next next project. I’ve got to think that for many solitary, non-verbal, non-sharing writers that transition to working with others can be jarring.

I understand that writing a novel is not like playing on a basketball team or jamming out with a band. It is also not like living in exile on a water planet in some forgotten corner of the galaxy.

Writing is an act of communication, and it’s good to make sure you’re always thinking about how your ideas, sentences, and words are going to hit people. This is a hard thing to achieve if you’re always interacting some imagined, idealized reader. Human interactions can tell you so much more and can get you further faster. Conversations can ease writers out of the solipsism that overshadows so much of the work. I know this blog is called Thinking Through Our Fingers, but for the record, I want to say that I actually do a lot of my thinking with my mouth.


Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Workflow: Formatting

Welcome to my fifth and final post on workflow. I’ve talked about my general workflow and tool choices as well as my capture, drafting, and revising processes. For me workflow has been something to focus on and refine, not for its own sake, but a task undertaken to increase the transparency of my tools. I really want to focus primarily on the “flow” part of the term.

Ultimately my goal is to not fiddle with the tools or to wonder how the tool works. I want to be able to settle into the writing with as few obstructions as possible. It’s taken me a long time to choose the tools and processes that work the best for me. It’s been a good investment, because I am now comfortable with them, and in all honestly, I don’t think about them much at all except when necessity forces me to use tools and processes that don’t work well with my preferred approach.



The final step in my workflow is formatting. I’ve mentioned that I write in text documents using a plain text markup formatting syntax called Markdown. The internet is overflowing with descriptions of Markdown and how it works. If you want to know more, I’d suggest you begin here with John Gruber, who started it all. Markdown allows you to designate your desired formatting in the simplest way possible without actually formatting the document. This allows you to format in plain text, which is the smallest, most future-proof and backward-compatible document format there is. Markdown allows anyone to see, at a glance, your intentions. It also allows you to create and share documents that might end up being formatted differently depending on the medium (webpage, blog, print, social media, etc.).

Here’s an example of Markdown syntax. There are also ways to use Markdown or one of its derivatives (MultiMarkdown, for example) to structure tables, footnotes, and the like.

Here’s a more substantial list of Markdown syntax.

Markdown has not been widely adopted

Markdown is really fantastic especially for writing that will appear on the web, but it hasn’t been widely adopted outside of the programming and blogging world. It’s a shame because it’s so easy to use and creates all kinds of consistency in application, even when preparing documents for print. You can even use a Markdown derivative for formatting heavy documents such as screen plays. It’s called Fountain, and I love it.

Markdown’s real power comes from it’s ability to work with different style sheets for different purposes. I have a style sheet for printing early drafts of fiction projects, which uses Courier font, 12 point, 2.0 line spacing, 1 inch margins, page numbering in the upper right hand corner. I like this formatting because it (a) reminds me that the document isn’t even close to done, (b) the monospaced Courier font gives me more red pencil room for revision, and (c) it allows me to visually distinguish early drafts from later ones.

I also have a style sheet for final drafts that really fits itself for use in Microsoft word. That style sheet uses Georgia, 11 point, 1.5 line spacing, 1 inch margins, clearly identifiably section breaks, and running headers with the work’s title, my name, and the page number. All of this is designed to make it easy for my agent to work with, handle, and share the document. If he was a Markdown user, this would be a different kind of article. But, alas, Word is the industry standard, and I have come to the realization that it’s less trouble to make my workflow and formatting as “empathetic” as possible. As I have mentioned before, the new Word for Mac and iOS is really quite good and it’s less trouble for me to use Word comfortably, which has made my life a lot easier.

Empathetic Formatting

For a long time, especially in graduate school, I was the main typesetter, designer, and production editor for a string of literary journals. This meant I spent a lot of time taking in and processing other people’s documents, almost all of them done in Word, and almost all of them chock full of strange and vexing formatting. Double spaces after periods, all kinds of tabs, four spaces then a “hard return,” all sorts of junk formatting that didn’t match the style sheet and specifications of our publication. Even when we’d send along a style sheet the formatting would come to us done however the writer wanted it formatted.

This is where I came up with the term “empathetic formatting.” I realized that what designers and typesetters wanted was the least amount of specialized formatting possible. They would be using pre-established house styles for all the document elements, which they would apply as paragraph or character elements. It would be easiest to strip all formatting from a document, which would cause its own set of problems because that would erase all of the formatting. I was doing most of this work before the advent of Markdown, but even if we would have had it then, I think it would have been very difficult to re-train writers to use it.

As a writer, you should go through your final drafts and use the Find/Replace function to look for extra spaces, tabs, and returns. It’s a small way to make the design people happy, and they are good people to keep happy.

What I do now when I have to work with the writing of other people is convert their .docx files to text files formatted with Markdown. I have a number of tools that help me with that conversion. I work with those documents this way, and then place the writing into the design software, webpage, or blog directly. It is hugely more efficient. The writer gets to do what they are comfortable with, and I get to work in a way that makes sense and is the most efficient for my workflow. Empathetic formatting leads to empathetic workflows.

Empathetic Workflows

In the end, the font you choose, the line spacing, and all of that is really a matter of personal preference until you have to start working with others. At this point, I think it’s the responsibility of writers to be as flexible and neutral as possible. For this blog post, I write in Ulysses, using a modified form of Markdown devised by the Ulysses developers, I export the document when I’m done as a Word .docx file with links and images embedded, then email it in. It only took a couple of emails to learn what Thinking Through Our Fingers wanted and needed and only a couple of extra steps to get the document to them in that format.

Your ability to be flexible and neutral in your final formatting really depends on your facility with your tools and the other tools people might be using. You need to know enough about your own workflow to ask good questions about the workflows of others. Once you have become empathetic and flexible, you’ll find that the business end of writing (editing, proofreading, redlining proofs, etc.) becomes a lot less stressful. You’ll be able to focus on the real creativity, because the necessary evils of formatting kind of take care of themselves.

Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.


Welcome to the fourth installment of my series on workflow. In previous posts I discussed the tools that work best for me, my general workflow, how I capture and process ideas, and how I draft. This time, I will share some thoughts on revision, how I stay organized, and the tools I use to transition from the solitary activity of having ideas and drafting them, to the teamwork good revision takes. I also have a surprising revelation about Word, a tool I have had trouble with in the past.

Writing is Rewriting (or it is?)

It’s the oldest of the old bromides that revision is the at the heart of writing. Interestingly enough, Hannah Sullivan, author of “The Work of Revision” argues that revision, where a work is massively and deeply reshaped is a recent innovation, largely absent from authors’ workflows prior to the 20th century. Sullivan argues that the typewriter was the catalyst for this change. A lot of what I’m trying to say in these posts on workflow have to do with a similar argument, that the materials and tools of the work (Sullivan calls this “literary technology”) have a profound effect on the product of our work.


If you’re interested in a deeper dive into this topic, I’d recommend the following.


I’m coming off a ten-month revision odyssey, working with an agent to prep a manuscript. This process has been transformative, but I think entirely impossible to accomplish even a few years ago.

As I have mentioned, I compose at the keyboard, in plain text, using Markdown to format documents. This allows me to keep my files in the cloud and make them available on a multitude of devices. At some point, though, all this digital work is too airy and diffused. I need to get it on paper, so I can carve into with a pen. I don’t need a paper stage because of nostalgia, I need paper because it slows me down, allowing me to think and act more deliberately.


Once I have something drafted, I print it out on paper, in Courier. I really do. Printing something in a nice font creates the illusion that the work is more finished than it is. My first major in college was graphic design and illustration, so I don’t come to the choice of courier lightly. I love nice fonts. I’ve even purchased Matthew Butterick’s amazing Equity font, and amazing alternative to Times New Roman. In fact, I want to be Matthew Butterick when I grow up. Check out his work here. The point of Courier is that it sends me a very important typographical message about how far along my work is not. Courier gives me permission to tear into things.

I take these printouts, and have them bound so I can take them with me. Sometimes, when I’m real serious, I print on legal paper leaving extra space at the bottom for notes.


Beta Readers and Proofreaders

Once I’ve retyped in my manual changes (often I just retype the whole thing. It’s faster, and it saves my mouse hand, I export the manuscript out of Ulysses as a .docx file and upload it to Google Drive. At this point, I’m done with the plain text/Markdown stage of things. If I knew all the other people I will be working with were comfortable and adept with those tools, I’d keep to this plain text way of working. But I can’t and shouldn’t expect others to bend to my workflow. I need to be empathetic to theirs.

I have two brilliant former students who read for me. The first is a beta reader, who helps me with plot, tone, continuity, images, and he catches a lot of my stupid errors. He’s a writer himself, with a master’s degree and good sense of what works and what doesn’t. The other is a professional proofreader with an amazing eye for detail. She is remarkable well read, has a deep sense of language, and she helps me fix everything. If you’re interested in contacting this proofreader, I’d be happy to help. Leave a comment on this post.


I pay these (with PayPal, I might add), which makes the transactions really easy. Publishing is a professional endeavor after all, and professionals should be paid. If I go into my argument for paying readers now, it’ll take this post of task, but I think it’s very important, and it’s more than a gesture.

These readers really get to see how the sausage is made. I would be lying if I said it was easy to share raw work with my former students, but these two are amazing. I am at a point where I can’t do the work with out them. The fantasy is that writers labor alone, I have found it’s quite the opposite.



With the document in Google Drive, my readers give feedback right in the Drive application. One of the readers, does much of the work on a phone or iPad. The other works from a computer. They both use the “Suggesting” mode in Google Docs instead of the “Editing” mode, which allows us to have a conversation about the document.

One of my Beta Readers lives in Japan and the other is in Kentucky. This method of working has helped me think about what it means to manage the demands of working across time zones.

Office 365 is the big surprise of the year

Once the revisions are through, I have an updated document in the cloud, which helps me with my ongoing concerns about backups. I like that I can get these documents, with its entire history of changes, from any internet-connected device. I like that I can download them in a variety of formats.

As much as I don’t like using Word, that’s the industry standard, and I’m going to change that, as much as I’d like to. In the past, using Word in my Apple workflow has been a night mare. Manuscript-length works took forever to load; the app was sluggish and would crash often.

Because I am working a lot with Word documents lately, I looked at the Office 365 version of Word for Mac and iOS, and I am happy to report that is really good. In fact, on iOS (phone and iPad) it’s delightful. The more I use it, the more I like it.

In my next, and final installment of this series, I’ll talk about document formatting in Markdown and in Word. I’m planning to nerd out about fonts, typography, white space, and the like. There are some standard practices for this, and there are some ways to do better than the defaults.

See you again in 2017.

Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.


Welcome to the third installment in a a series of posts on workflow. In the first post, I shared my general approach to writing and wrote broadly about the tools I use. In the second post I focused on the Capture Stage, or how to get ideas into a computer. In this post, I will focus on drafting and how I use Ulysses to do it.


Since this post is coming right at the close of NaNoWriMo, it seems right to talk about how drafting is all about velocity. Thinking Through Our Fingers Bloggers have mapped this territory very well.

Even though I’ve been teaching for 20 years and writing for longer, I’m not 100% sure I know what drafting is. I spend the bulk of my time revising, not drafting. Which has given me a strange sense of what the process actually is. The simplest definition I can muster is this: drafting is what it takes to get something to the point where it can be revised.


Defining the Path

In order to get to this point, I need to start, and I need to produce something. I have found it difficult to dive right into line-by-line writing, so instead I create a short, map/outline/treatment I call a pathway. Every section, chapter, or scene starts this way, and I try to write the pathway in a single sitting, so I won’t lose the flow.

A pathway is made out of simple sentences about cause and effect, moments or images I think will be important. I also block out the dialogue: who will say what, how it will be paced, sometimes I’ll put down key lines. Sometimes I’ll ask myself direct questions or give myself reminders. Mostly the pathway isn’t about specifics, it’s the broadest possible approach.

The point of the pathway is to have something “tangible” at the end of the session. From that point on, I use the pathway to guide each subsequent night of writing (I write almost exclusively after bedtimes now, like a vampire).

Here’s an example of a pathway I did for a section of the project I’m currently revising. I’m including a screen capture, so you can see what it looks like in Ulysses, my main writing application. I’ve also blurred out a spoiler. You can see how loose and chaotic my drafting is. I’m often alarmed at how messy I am at this stage.


I Draft Recursively

After the pathway, I dive in and write one longer draft based on the pathway. I’d be lying if I said I fleshed out that outline. I almost always diverge from the pathway. In many cases the “draft” and the pathway don’t even look like they came from the same person. This long, shaggy rough draft happens 300 words at a time.

Once I make my quota, I quit for the day then come back to the original 300 words and re-reread them to get my bearings. I will inevitably fuss a little, but I don’t let myself edit. Nothing kills my momentum faster than trying to serve two masters at this point. Reviewing what’s already drafted gets me back in the swing of things and propels me forward.

  • Draft 300 words.
  • Read 300 words. Draft another 300 words.
  • Read 600 words. Draft another 300 words.
  • Read 900 words. Draft another 300 words.
  • Et cetera until the chapter, story, or scene is done.

This pattern works for things that are a couple thousand words long. If I have to go beyond that, I only re-read 600 words or so. The idea is momentum. Always momentum.

Making Divisions

The magic in the drafting process comes around when I chunk it up into scenes (and this is where Ulysses becomes crucial). Back in the day, this was a paper, scissors, and tape process for me. I was always shuffling narrow strips of paper around, like Eudora Welty who used to fasten her story scraps together with straight pins.

“I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as a whole and at a glance — helpful and realistic.” Eudora Welty in a letter to William Maxwell (1953)

I used this paper process until around 2005, when I just couldn’t keep going back and forth from a paper workflow and a digital. It felt like trying to pull a wagon by hitching together an ostrich on one side and dolphin on the other.

The big change came when I was able to digitally chop up a document into “sheets” and then digitally rearrange them. It also made my chaotic drafting practice blend more placidly into my much more muted revision process, which really does depend on the document model. (More on that next post).

I am a big fan of note cards, and applications that use the sheet model have given me the ability to “manipulate” digital documents in a way that feels right to me. My move to Ulysses feels like I’ve been able to eliminate at least two steps from my previous way of doing things.

This tutorial from Emily Lowrey covers the basics, and she’s delightful to listen to.

Talking to People is Fine

While I’m drafting I talk a lot, mostly to my wife, who has, over time, adjusted to this practice. It’s probably better to say that she accepts it was one of the consequences of living with a writer. I don’t problem-solve very well on my own as I do when I interact with someone. During these talking sessions a lot of “what ifs” and “maybe the character shoulds” fly around. My wife is skilled at furrowing her eyebrows at just the right angle when I’m taking a direction she doesn’t like.

I should add, she’s pretty much always right.

I’ve heard all the advice about not talking when you should be writing, and I don’t subscribe to that point of view. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “to everything there is a season.” There is a time to speak and a time to shut up and write. I’m getting better at knowing which is which. I know I could be in the minority on this point. The talking part of drafting is really important.

The difference between drafting and revising.

In the end, the trick of drafting is keeping myself from meddling in my own business. It’s a bad idea to try to serve two masters: to try to write and edit at the same time. I worked with a student once who could not proceed from one sentence to the next if she felt the first sentence wasn’t perfect.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. It’s been said in many different ways by Confucius and Voltaire, but it’s some of the best advice out there. Nora Roberts, however, may have said it best, “You can’t edit a blank page.”

In my next post, I’ll go through my revision process, and the tools I use to get that work done.

Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Workflow: Capture

This is the second in a series of posts on my digital writing tools and workflows. In the first post I described my move away from word processing software and use of text files. I also outlined the big chunks of my workflow. This post will focus on the first step: Capture.


The idea of capture comes from one of the cornerstone concepts of David Allen’s productivity bible, Getting Things Done. Before you can actually get something done, you have to capture all the random stuff floating around out there. Immediate and ubiquitous capture is crucial because ideas come upon us so quickly and fade from our memories, like tears in rain.


Allen says our minds are terrible places to store new information, and I agree with him. The Muses aren’t thoughtful enough to ask if we’re ready for them. Consequently, I’ve been working on ways to be ready for them when they pop in unannounced.


My larcenous imagination clicks into gear, not when I’m daydreaming, but when I’m out in the world. That is where I find my raw materials for writing. I’m like a magpie when I find these treasures. I want to stash each one of them away.

Until just recently, I used to accomplish this by scribbling notes everywhere, which worked okay, I guess, if I didn’t lose anything. And I can’t tell you how many amazing ideas drowned in the washing machine.

It became clear to me that if I wanted to benefit from inspiration, I needed to move these ideas into the cloud as quickly as I could. So, I tried using my phone. I emailed myself, text messaged myself, and tried dozens of applications. I quickly discovered my phone was a great tool for capture but not so hot for organization, storage, and retrieval.

Until I stumbled upon an application called Drafts.

Drafts by Agile Tortoise

Drafts is a text editor for mobile devices. (It’s currently only available for iOS, sorry Android users.) On the surface it seems like just another place to input text, but it’s a much, much deeper than that.

Drafts is fast. You start by opening the app. There is no need to tap through a bunch of options and menus. As far as capture goes, nothing is faster. Drafts plus Siri dictation gives me the fastest capture method I’ve tried.

Once the text is in Drafts, that’s great, but Drafts allows you to decide where you’re going to send that text. Drafts allows you to “shoot” your text into applications or files of all types: text messages, Evernote pages, emails, you name it. A Drafts workflow is highly configurable.

If you want to take a look at how all of this works, I recommend these two screencasts by David Sparks:

Overview, getting to know Drafts 

Drafts and Dropbox 

How I use Drafts

I use the “prepend to a text file” workflow extensively in my workflow. I have a few container text files in place in a special Dropbox folder called “Text Files.” There’s a document in there called “fictionideas.txt” I have another called “possibleblogposts.txt.” I’ll also set up files for current projects. I have one for books I want to read, movies I want to watch. There’s one for quotations and another for things I know I need to do but am for some reason putting off. That file is called “promptings.txt”

Let me show you how this works.

The other day, I was in the grocery story parking lot loading bags into the back of our minivan. From the corner of my eye, I saw three little birds shoot out from underneath a couple of neighboring cars, glide across the open space, and land under a grey Dodge Charger. I thought it was a lovely image that I could use in something. I didn’t have a place for it, but I felt the moment had possibilities, so I pulled out my phone did the following:

picture1Next Post – Drafting

In the videos I shared, David Sparks talks about “processing” captured text. The steps I described above are how I generally do that that processing step.

Capturing ideas is not all that useful if you don’t have a way to return to the ideas and use them. Given the application’s name, it sounds a little bit weird that I don’t actually “draft” using Drafts. It’s primary utility is its ability to convert ideas into text so I can send them to a safe place where I know I’ll find them again (not the washing machine).


Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.