Imagine a shorthand that works for complex storytelling as well as true shorthand works for speeding up general writing. A writer’s shorthand does exist, with the use of placeholding “things-yet-to-be-written” in brackets.

When you experience a fit of inspiration, how do you capture it quickly enough to get it all down? Many writers turn to dictation, as speaking an idea can be up to four times faster than typing, which is faster than writing long-hand with pen and paper.

What if there were an even faster way to record your thoughts? When a story spills out of you, it often comes at a fierce pace. Taking the time to write down all the words can derail your ideas or kill the mood. Moreover, the first time you imagine the way your story unfolds, you won’t have all the details. The last thing you want is to stop your flow of thought to find the right word for “blah-di-blah” or the exact descriptions of the scene. You just want to get the ideas out of your head and speed on.

Imagine a shorthand that works for complex storytelling as well as true shorthand works for speeding up general writing. Such a writer’s shorthand does exist, based on the use of place-holding “things-yet-to-be-written” in brackets. At its most extreme, it’s just called an outline, but this is the next phase, because it’s readable, like your real book will be.

[Bracket] shorthand is the art of summarizing longer chunks of text in very short ones. These placeholders do a fine job of capturing meaning without slowing you down while you are experiencing a fit of writing. If you’ve never experienced a fit of writing in which the thoughts come more quickly than you can get them recorded, working with [bracket] shorthand might just induce them. Because you are chunking your story into natural “units” as you go along, you’ll end up with more structure. You can replace, switch, lengthen, shorten, or delete these chunks long before you ever have to take the time to write them out.

[Bracket] shorthand is extremely simple and straightforward. It involves adopting the practice of using brackets and understanding how to fluidly transition between the abstract and the concrete. It follows one simple principle: Put, in brackets, a short note about anything you don’t know at the moment or don’t have the time to write out in detail. Then you can come back to it later when you have had more time to think or have enough time to finish up the words you know you want to write.

Anything, large or small, can be placed in the brackets. Place brackets around:

  • A word you can’t quite remember but know you need. The girl threw her [pick color – curly or straight?] hair over her shoulder.
  • Decisions you still need to make. The [how many witches here, 2 or 3?] fled into the cave to escape [what type of monster?]
  • A scene or even a whole chapter: After [describing the shipwreck] the surviving pirates [how many?] washed up on the beach and [explored the island, finding it uninhabited]. On the third day, the first phoenix bird flew over the island. [A chapter about them first trying to eat the bird and then figuring out the phoenix is magic follows.]

In each case you’ll be inserting an abstract version of an idea, scene, paragraph, phrase or word that you know you need to flesh out with detail later.

This is how writers write stories, adding details over time. If you are a true pantser and plan nothing, but let your words tell you what the story is, you will be doing the opposite. You will be deriving the abstract from the concrete that you write. This method can still help you work faster.

Once you have torn through a passage as fast as you needed to, you just have to search for the square bracket and follow the instructions you left yourself. You can write a paragraph this way, or a whole book. Imagine being able to write out the plot for a whole book in 15 minutes. It’s possible this way!

Even a reader can make sense of your shorthand as all the high-level detail is there. And if you practice this shorthand diligently, all your notes for filling in will be there to guide you when you return. And since you rarely, if ever, use a square bracket in fiction, when the time comes, you can just do a search for them in your text document. When they are all gone, you’ve completed a full draft.

This is also a great way to get yourself immersed when you return to the keyboard. Just read along until you see a bracket that needs expanding. When you take up your draft again, you will never have to guess where they are, you’ll be off and writing in no time. As brackets are entered, new ones will appear. They might even multiply. This is just your draft expanding, like a balloon. This helps you balance out the whole draft and let it takes its proper shape before you weigh it down with the details that will bring it to life.

Eventually, they will reduce down. At a wonderful turning point, you’ll stop writing in brackets and only use words.

Being able to write in [bracket] shorthand takes an acute awareness of abstractions versus concrete details. Doing it develops awareness of the difference. Writers are always extolled to replace anything abstract with concrete details. Use proper nouns, show don’t tell. Being able to “abstract up” and “make concrete” are two essential skills of great writers.

 

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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 30 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

16 thoughts on “[Bracket] shorthand helps you draft with lightning speed

  1. Thanks, Dawn. This approach works.

    I don’t use brackets, but asterisks work just as well. I insert them wherever I need something I can’t quite grasp or don’t have time for at the moment. During edit phase, I use “zzzzz” to mark my place if I have to zip to another spot in my document. It’s a “return here” shorthand that speeds my work. Every minute saved in mundane tasks is another minute I can devote to writing.

    1. Tina says:

      I like this idea. I’ve used TK in the past, and search for that and go back and fill in or fix what I was thinking about; but I like the idea of the brackets because it focuses on what I can’t think of at the moment– where TK sometimes leaves me wondering–what did I want there? Thanks.

    2. LARRY C BUSH says:

      Not to be a wise guy, but the illustration above shows “Braces,” not “Brackets.” Braces: { }. . . Brackets: [ ] They actually have different functions although in this case I suppose anything would suffice to speed up the composition process. Good tip any way you slice it. . .

      1. BookBaby Andre says:

        Well… actually the image has brackets and braces. The brackets are a bit more stylized. Maybe I should have thrown parentheses in there for the trifecta.

  2. John Clark says:

    I simply put 2 question marks [??] which means to me that I have to come back to it for a word or phrase that escapes me at the moment.

    1. Albert says:

      Essentially that’s what I do except I used five question marks; I ?????

  3. Ryan says:

    This is so useful!
    I actually use “[blah blah blah]” when I want to note that I should come back for more description later.

  4. Larry Burns says:

    on a related note, I found it much easier to find what I wrote later by using labels. I keep a running word document of notes, outlines and other writing attempts and starts. By writing “poem” or “article” or “flash fiction”, and a few subjective ones “funny” “sarcastic” “dogs” help me find drafts related to a subject much easier. Has helped with submissions on short deadlines.

  5. Ronald Morgan says:

    Wow. I’ve been doing that for years thinking that I was a dummy. Now I find out that I’ve been smart all along! 🙂

  6. Derek Finnik says:

    I also bold the contents so it stands out in revision mode, so the brackets don’t accidentally make it into the final draft/book!

  7. Megan Trimble says:

    I do this sometimes when I don’t have a name for someone. I’ve also heard of writers who placeholder with a word like “elephant” so that they can find it easily when revising.

  8. Nancy North-Gates says:

    I do something similar when my brain refuses to remember a word. I put (WORD) there and go back later. I also leave notes for myself in red. 🙂

  9. This is a great idea and I’m sure will help many. I note that others have their own similar ideas – whatever works for you is fine. I find that if I can Bold, Underline and colour Red my in-text notes I can find them whenever I want so easily as they visibly stand out. From here on in I’ll add square brackets too!

  10. I’ve so totally been using this approach for the past year and it works great. Thanks for giving it a name! 🙂

  11. Katharine says:

    I’ve been doing this for years. I don’t use the brackets, I just write it all down, a bit like the Amplified Bible:

    He took her warm soft fragile birdlike hand in his callused huge rough hand and whispered mumbled words of love admiration in a dopey arcane sobbing childlike strained squeaking trambling voice.

    And yeah, I keep the misspelling b/c I’m typing with my eyes closed. And yeah, it is fast.

  12. Wendy says:

    I don’t see how bracketing creates “lightning speed.” Yes, it’s a way of skipping over parts that you don’t have a good feel for yet and marking them so you can come back later, but you’re not typing any faster. My problem is that I’ll get a strong scene–something that might be 2-3k words long, and not have the time to type it out (at my rate of type, that’s a good hour or better of typing, assuming my keyboard’s not acting up).

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