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“Pantsing’ is a term in the writing business that is short for “writing by the seat of your pants,” or, writing without a plan.

It is something I’d been doing for a few months, and in December, it caught up with me. You see, I had a good idea about how to tell Emmett’s story; I thought it compelling, so I jumped right in, without any real story outline developed. I cranked out 80-something pages. ‘Pantsing’ can be productive. Productive, however, is not the same thing as good.

You’d think I would have known better, but folks, the compulsion to write is strong, sometimes overwhelming. I feel I must do this, like some people feel they must exercise, or shop. Or drink.

I told myself, ‘this can’t be any harder than the dissertation. I can do this bio thing. I’ll just channel the inspiration, and it will come together, somehow. No problem.’

Memories can fade after a distance of 15 years (I finished the dissertation in 2000). I sort-of ‘forgot’ that I started writing the dissertation the same way before I was told by those more knowledgeable that a dissertation has a five-part architecture. You can’t “pants” your way to a PhD, they told me, kindly. I had to start over. I’m glad I did, because document architecture made the paper a lot less stressful to write, and the end product was much better than anything I could have turned out on my own.

Speaking of history, right before Christmas, my 7th grade daughter was studying World War I in her World History class. One afternoon after school, she told me that it was boring, and she didn’t see how studying WWI was relevant to her current life.

I told her that we study history so that we don’t repeat mistakes. The problem is that people often forget the mistakes and the lessons learned, and so, we tend to repeat those mistakes.

And as we were talking, a light bulb went off in my head. I woke up. I got it.

After Christmas, I decided to do a little research into story architecture, and get real. I talked to colleagues at school who know about my research — successful, published writers of fiction and nonfiction — and I listened to their advice.

Both colleagues recommended a writing class or workshop that focused entirely on story architecture. The workshop I am taking is self-directed and online, provided by writer Larry Brooks. The story architecture model I’m playing with is fairly common across different genres, and I can see how to apply it in a biography.

The desire to jump in and write isn’t always a bad thing, if you know where you are going with the writing. I just wanted to jump right into the exciting activity of writing. The jumping in without preparation cost me time, energy, and peace of mind.

There is a lot of work involved in devising the story architecture, but it is like planning a cross-country trip. You don’t just get into the car, unprepared, without cash, a map or GPS, cell phone, or luggage. You could, of course, but what happens when you need to refuel? Or, if you need to take another route?

Want to see a rough story architecture in the works?

It's rough. But hey, it's a structure in the works.

It’s rough. But hey, it’s a structure in the works.

It is really rough. I have a lot of other pages hanging on the walls in my office, all around the room. It is cool, though, to be surrounded by the story. I like also the idea of writing on the wall and working in an idea as it comes to mind.

This is only the second set of wall maps I’ve made; I’m expecting to make many, many more. Thank goodness I have a huge role of butcher paper on hand.


Just so you know, I tried MindMeister. It works fine, but to be honest, I’ll probably not use it because I like the actual pen-and-paper approach. I like physically interacting with Emmett’s story; I don’t know how to explain it, but this is comfortable for me. MindMeister is great for mind maps. I can see it might work for the smaller chapters/scenes in the book — but I want to keep the architecture mapping process simple. I have a lot of complicated information to weave together into a large story already — I don’t need the technology to get in the way of my work, too.

Putting this story map together on the wall sets my mind at ease about the work I’ve put into the research so far. I feel like I could go forward now.

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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