When you’re writing, it’s easy to become deluged by information, but transforming massive piles of information into a first draft can be simpler than it seems.
When you’re writing, it’s easy to become deluged by information.
Perhaps you’re working on a personality profile and your subject sends you 30 pages of supporting information when all you really needed was a two-paragraph bio. Maybe you’ve spoken with a loquacious subject-matter expert and your interview transcript stretches around the block. Or imagine you’re working on a short story where a character needs to speak knowledgeably about a real and complex technical industry that you, as the writer, know absolutely nothing about.
Regardless of the context, learning how to quickly organize, process, and boil down vast troves of information into something that you can understand and use can be a tremendous boost to your writing practice.
Here’s an approach that has helped me in situations like the ones described above.
Consolidate your raw info
Provided my sources are digital (websites, emails, PDFs, etc.), I paste all of the background text relevant to my current writing project into a single document. I find this much less taxing than having to flip through multiple webpages or windows, remembering what came from where, and so on.
It always proves useful to format my text in the same font, color, and size. This helps me evaluate the content of the paragraphs in front of me on a level playing field and focus on the info that’s most relevant to my efforts.
I also make a point of carefully labelling each text chunk so I know where it came from. And if I discover something that’s particularly promising, I either make it bold or underline it so it’s easy for me to find as I move my project forward.
Finally, I cut and paste sections in whatever way makes sense in the context of the project. This could mean putting information chronologically, or grouped according to source or to subject. The goal here is to create some sort of order out of chaos, so whatever organizational scheme works for the project is the one I follow.
Once everything is consolidated into a single document, I make a copy and save the versions with file names like “ProjectX_raw” and “ProjectX_edit_1.0.” The “raw” version stays untouched, in case I need to go back and see my reference material from before I started messing with it.
Start with what’s easy
When looking at mountains of text that you need to read, chew on, and digest, it’s easy to feel intimidated. That’s why I don’t necessarily start at the top. Instead, I skim through my master document until I see something that seems simple to transform from raw source material into draft-worthy text. Even if it’s a simple throwaway quote or an ancillary background fact, working just a single sentence into a nugget of semi-polished text can provide a powerful foothold.
Once I’ve knocked out one or two easy tweaks, more things suddenly start to seem easy; once I have some momentum, the mountain of text doesn’t look quite so mountainous.
Cut what you know you don’t need
Once I process and squeeze whatever draft text I can out of any given chunk of source text, I hit the delete key and move on. I try to be as ruthless as possible when it comes to cutting and enjoy watching my document’s character count shrink as I move from an ocean of raw source material to a well-flowing first draft.
The further I get in this process, the more trigger-happy I am when it comes to deleting text. If there’s a quote that sounds interesting but just doesn’t apply to the theme of the piece I’m writing, it goes away. Similarly, any background info, anecdotes, or other material that doesn’t directly apply and support my writing goals goes away.
I trust my writer’s gut on this and tend to be liberal when pruning anything that feels extraneous. After all, if it turns out I was wrong, I can always go back to my “raw” document and grab what I need again.
Cite as you go
When necessary, I make sure to properly credit and attribute quotes and information as I go. Making proper citations a regular habit, and an ongoing part of the process, is much easier than doing it retroactively once the piece is done and absolutely better than missing a needed credit or citation altogether.
Repeat, refine, edit
I keep chipping away, even if it feels like trying to carve marble with a toothbrush. Small improvements add up and the more momentum I can gain as I turn raw material into draft text, the better.
Take it from the top
When I’m not sure where to go next, I jump to the top of my draft-in-progress, read through what I have, and see where the next easy hole to fill is. Similarly, if I don’t have much (or any) draft text down yet, I step back, flip through my source material, and find the next simple step I can take to turn something — anything — from raw source text into readable material.
When it comes to mastering source material and figuring out how to best boil it down into concise and effective writing, progress can be slow at first, but I’ve found that it generally increases at exponential speed the more progress I make and the more I internalize my subject matter and develop the themes, tone, and scope of the piece. Tenacity and compartmentalization are key, and focusing on both will pay you back in dividends in your own writing work.
How do you approach turning tons of information into ounces of gold in your own writing? Tell us in the comments below.
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