Every topic expands once you start writing about it.
But sometimes, a topic expands so much that it creates writing sprawl where it grows so far that you can’t wrap your head around it anymore. Sprawl leads to confusion, and confusion leads to the kind of writer’s block that prevents you from writing anything at all. Eventually, a 500-word article called “What I Learned from My 3rd Grade Teacher,” which should take two hours to write, turns into “The Ultimate Guide to Childhood Education” which demands five years of research and a book-length treatment.
To combat writing sprawl, I recommend nestling a Summary Box inside a Circle of Distracting Ideas. I’ll explain each phrase in turn.
A Summary Box is like a scientific abstract, except it’s designed to keep you focused instead of helping the reader. It’s a 200-400 word summary of what you plan to write about. Like an abstract, it explains the core ideas without any of the nuance that makes the article worth reading. It sits inside the Circle of Distracting Ideas, where you drop all the ideas that feel important but are ultimately distracting. By writing them down, you give yourself the satisfaction of externalizing them so you can return to them in a future article, while also avoiding writing sprawl.
Your writing process should begin not by typing, but by drawing your Summary Box. Once it’s complete, focus exclusively on the ideas in your Summary Box. Doing so will keep you focused because it’s an explicit pledge to not get sidetracked by distracting ideas.
To be sure, I only use this strategy when I know what I’m going to say before I start writing. But the Summary Box is counter-productive for open-ended essays where you don’t know what you’re going to say before you start writing. For those, I recommend the Island and Bridges Strategy.
If you’re struggling to write a Summary Box, pretend to have two minutes to explain your article to a friend. Then, transcribe what you say. For whatever reason, it’s easier to summarize ideas by talking instead of writing. No matter how you complete it, writing a Summary Box will make you faster by keeping you focused on your Shiny Dime.
Sign up for my free writing course if you want to learn more.
You’ll learn about Personal Monopolies, the Netflix Principle, and how to build your email list.