words like vegetables

Imagine preparing a meal for some friends. Part of the process is shopping. So you trot off to your supermarket, street market, specialist shops or wherever. On the way you’re likely to pick up other useful items too, that are nothing to do with the meal but you know you need. So your shopping bags include cleaning materials, birthday cards, light bulbs… as well as stuff for meals later in the week..

Then imagine all that shopping laid out on the kitchen table in the state you bought it. Spices, cauliflower, bleach, garlic, lemons, sweet potatoes, breakfast cereal, leeks flour, herbs, avocados, bin liners, fish, onions, tomato puree, aubergines, oil…all in an unsorted jumble.

Let’s say you have four hours before your friends arrive. You have to process that material in some orderly way into a welcoming meal. If you set off on your task focused on your shopping, trying to make it all fit together and determined to make best use of every item, you are heading for a kitchen crisis. It won’t work. You will burn out and despair.

That is exactly how some people approach a writing project. They stare at the material they have gathered. Some of it clearly fits. They know what they want to do with it. But other stuff doesn’t seem to belong, or there’s too much of it, or it doesn’t fit alongside other bits. They think it’s part of a writer’s skill to handle that material in a way that somehow magically makes it fit. It isn’t.

Instead, as with cooking, you must be guided by your menu, not by your ingredients. You imagine your guests arriving, and think through the dishes you’ll present and the order of them. You draw up a prep list based on those dishes. You tidy away all the stuff from the kitchen table and go to it only when your schedule says you need it.

It’s just the same with writing. The menu is your project’s structure, the contents list, which you’ve drawn up on the basis of your readers’ needs. You gather material that allows you to deliver that. You use only the material that fits the end product. You are not led by it.

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