Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Allow yourself to get sidetracked

There can be times when it is useful getting sidetracked with your writing. Whilst it's good to plan an outline of your article, short story, letter or whatever, sometimes your brain decides to take you off in a completely different direction to that sketched out in your notebook.

Deviating from your plan can be the road to ruin if your planned idea remains focused on your target readership, however, as long as you recognise that you are deviating away from your plan (and will have the strength to return to it later) then why not follow where your brain is going to see where the deviation takes you? You may surprise yourself with what you write.

I often think that writing is a lot like mountain climbing. You know where you're going to start (at the bottom) and where you are aiming for (the top) and your outline should identify your route to the summit. But until you actually start wandering along that path, you don't know what lies out there.

Last week I was in the Lake District and the weather on one day was perfect for climbing a mountain. The lucky mountain in question was Skiddaw, one I'd attempted to climb several years ago with a friend but we were beaten back just 500 feet from the summit by bad weather.

Anyway, there I was, climbing up between Dodd and Ullock Pike, (they didn’t mind, honestly), and to be quite frank, having ascended some 1,000 feet, I was looking for an excuse to stop. To the right I spotted a seat, so I wandered off my path. I sat down (okay, call it collapsed) and gazed at the view over Bassenthwaite Lake. Outstanding. When it was time to start moving again, instead of returning back along the route I’d come, to rejoin my main path, I continued to follow this minor path. It gently bent around to the left, and continued in a long arc until eventually, about fifteen minutes later, another amazing vista opened up. Far below, lay Keswick, Derwent Water and the beginnings of Borrowdale. Sheer magic.

But I only saw that view, because I’d been prepared to deviate from my intended route, and there are times when we should allow ourselves to do that with our writing. If a new angle takes over, when you were not expecting it to, let it. See where it takes you. It could be to a better view. And if it leads you to a precipice, well you can still turn round and retrace your steps. But at least you know where that route leads.

Continuing my ascent of Skiddaw, I deviated from the route several times during the day. Near the summit, the map suggested that the path went up a sheer scree slope, but I decided on another deviation to follow a more obvious path through more scree, but this one that looked more survivable.

Now this alternative route was about a foot wide, but had about the same number of people on it as the escalators at the Trafford Centre in Manchester. This meant it was a slow climb to allow people to pass safely, one at a time. I didn’t mind – it offered more chances to stop and breathe, as well as great conversation opportunities or as we writers call them - eavesdropping moments. One woman, who was on her way down, slowed as she passed me. She nodded to the man in front of her then turned and said, “If he wanted a divorce there were easier ways to go about it.” I laughed. She didn’t.

Moments later, a group of school kids rushed by. “Mr Stevenson says that the tuck shop at the top closes in ten minutes. Come on, get your skates on!”

Oh Mr Stevenson, how naughty of you! But there in my mind was the formation of a new article – overhead conversations on a mountain. It’s already on its way to its intended market. Now that wouldn’t have happened, had I not deviated from my planned route.

So next time you start writing, and you find yourself wandering off your intended route, relax. Let it happen. See where it takes you. The worst that can happen is that you end up retracing your steps and then following your planned route. As for the best - well you could get a whole new piece of work out of it!

Good luck.


  1. I'm intrigued how he went about the divorce now!! I find overheard conversations interesting as well as hilariously funny sometimes. I'm always whipping my note book out and writing bits of conversation I hear while out and about!

    It's amazing, sometimes, when I start out on a short story, I very often end off somewhere different from where I'd planned. Nothing like a good tangent to get the creative juices flowing!

  2. Yes I totally agree Simon, sometimes the end product from sidetracking is much better than Plan A. I also love the conversation snippets as well!