Plotting by the headlights

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." -- E.L. Doctorow

This is one of my favorite quotes about writing. Not only because it's a brilliant way to look at the daily struggle of getting those words on the page, but also because it fits my writing method to a T. Despite being an insanely organized person, when it comes to writing, I'm just the opposite. My calendar (yes, still a paper one) and kitchen pantry and car are so neat and orderly that my family makes fun of me, but my notes for my work-in-progress? A mess of scribbles on Post-its and napkins, typed notes with handwritten additions in the margins (some underlined, some highlighted, some smudged), sheets of paper torn from a journal, sketches, articles...well, you get the idea. Once, when I didn't have a pen, I even wrote myself a note in lipstick. 

I admit this disarray always kind of bothered me. Why was I so unorganized when it came to my work? Why did I have so many fragmented thoughts to sift through when I sat down to write? Why couldn't I just envision the story, make ONE set of notes or even -- gasp, an outline -- and write it exactly as I planned?

For my next book, I vowed to turn over a new leaf. When I began the novel -- due to come out next September -- I made a detailed outline. It's a sequel so I already had the characters and setting and a rough idea of the story arcs. I plotted out each chapter and organized every one of my notes into neat categories. No more random scraps of paper! No more disorganization! I could do this!

And, yeah.

I wrote a draft just like I'd plotted, wasn't so good. Instinctively, I knew why. I'd become too concerned with following the plan. My creativity was inhibited. My imagination was stifled. I hadn't allowed myself to veer off the path, sift through my piles and grab one of my scribbles in a moment of inspiration and say oh! -- this is where this belongs!

I had to start over, and my next draft was a lot better. The disorganized mess is just part of how I write. I've concluded that outlines don't work for me. I write by the headlights. It's okay if I can't see ahead farther than the chapter I'm working on, or have a feel for, but don't exactly know the ending. All of my scribbles and notes are pieces I spot as my headlights illuminate them, even if I don't know yet where they go in the story. They'll find their way, just as I will.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up, a 2018 Illinois Reads selection, The Summer I Saved the 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. Find her online at


  1. Wonderful reminders that sometimes we just need to accept that we are who we are and honor the process that works for US.


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