ponder - write better by organizing your ideas

The act of writing anything involves distillation, decision-making, and shaping. No matter what your raw material is about, who your audience is, or what form your finished creation takes, at some point in the process you think about what words to use and what order to put them in.

Often, we do this kind of pondering automatically and unconsciously, our attention on the topic rather than the process, but it helps to know how to do it consciously. You can take your writing to another level when you know how to muscle the magic.

This evaluating stage of creating doesn’t look like the cold, hard kind of thinking. There’s room for sensing and intuiting as the writing moves forward by trial and error, as we rely on an inner sense to tell us when we’ve said what we want to say in the way we want to say it.

The process of pondering can make a big mess. We bite off more than we can chew and have to spit some of it back out (yuck). We leave half-thoughts lying around and trip over them later (sometimes just when we need them). We test possibilities by walking on bouncy planks across gaps between thoughts, surviving crash landings and wading through cast-offs. We break things as we test them for strength. We learn as we try.

ponder – review, weigh, chew over, think about, pore over, study, deliberate, puzzle over, consider with care, turn over in one’s mind, think through, contemplate, reflect deeply, ruminate, mull over, muse on, meditate on

Pondering with the intent to finish is a way of curating your collection, a way of working out how to build a trail through your trove of raw material that someone else can follow. You interpret and show. You entice. You place something alluring in the reader’s path, beguiling and seducing them to move closer, to examine and follow.

Through distillation and presentation, you give the reader the benefit of your expertise. You put a prism into the light beam of your wonder, which your adoration has focused. Pondering refracts and clarifies wonder, translating and intensifying it to make it more visible to others.

The prism’s mechanism is the act of deciding. If you want to write something you can share with others, you’ll need to decide. What do you include and what do you leave out? How do you work the half-baked, half-chewed mess of the process into an organized finished something? How do you present it in a way that helps the reader see what’s amazing?

decide – select, pick, choose, examine, sort out, figure out, commit oneself, determine, work out, settle, solve, opt, negotiate, give a verdict on, take a stand, make up one’s mind, conclude, resolve, complete

The crucial focus in the pondering stage of creating revolves around how you decide. What’s your way of turning your raw material into a finished piece? How do you turn your ideas about the characters into a novel? How do you turn an experience into a poem?

Know yourself. Resist apology. Invite tolerance. Don’t try to curate your wondrous collection as though you were someone else. You aimed at and found raw material that inspires you – by being the most you you could be. Keep doing that. Be most like yourself as you sort and decide. Finding your way of pondering will transform your writing process and your writing, by freeing your attention so you can focus on the words.

If you resist the idea that you already use a system or that you need a system as part of the creative process, consider expanding your idea of what a system can be. Creativity and systems are not mutually exclusive.

system – strategy, style, modus operandi, approach, a method for achieving an objective, arrangement, tactic, map, route, master plan, methodology, recipe, process, coordination, interconnected parts working together, a means of forming a complex whole

Systems get a bad rap when we think of them as static: “Either you can use this system or you can’t, and if you can’t, it’s you who’s lacking.” Wrong. Systems serve. If you’re serving the system and feeling punished for your efforts, free yourself to try another way of working.

This golden rule about systems never fails:

If it’s not working for you, it’s the wrong system.

This is crucial. Knowing how you curate your raw material into a finished piece makes a gigantic difference. You can’t fake it. Don’t be a slave to a system of writing a novel or finishing a dissertation or turning out three articles a week for your blog if it’s not actually working to produce those things.

Invent a system if you need to. Free yourself from the inefficiency and tyranny of system slavery. Demand support for your artistry, starting with the way you treat yourself as you create.

Here are some examples of systems for writing:

  • Use bribery. Tie incredibly motivating rewards to goals, like writing a certain number of words a week. Reach the goal, get the reward.
  • Ask someone who understands you to give you assignments toward finishing the project. Report back to them as you go.
  • Use what already works. Transfer a favourite way of organizing in another area of your life to the writing process.
  • Talk into a recorder, have the audio files transcribed, and revise from there.
  • Write in a cafe, with a writing buddy, and share what you’ve done after each session.
  • Use flow charts, mind-mapping, clustering, spreadsheets, a clipboard, specialized software programs, a three-ring binder … whatever works.

The trick about discovering and designing systems that really work is keeping at it until you succeed. Such systems are well worth the effort of figuring out because of their zoom effect. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when the system itself fades into the background and all your attention is on the work, on the writing itself.

If your attention remains on the system rather than the work,
the system isn’t working.

You can try using systems other writers use, but if their system doesn’t fade into your background, leaving you to focus on your work, you’d better tweak it so it does, or toss it out and try another one. Keep exploring and asking questions.

Here’s a mini starter kit to get you going. Ask yourself …

  • What format does this material want to be presented in?
  • What’s the hardest part of finishing this writing project?
  • What else can I experiment with to make my process less difficult?
  • What kinds of process systems have worked for me in the past?
  • What part of the process can I eliminate altogether?
  • What do I most enjoy about the writing process?
  • How can I maximize and build on what I love about this process?

Writing mastery is built through practice. You write. You write again. You write some more. You figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. You open more. You remain curious. You learn about and fine-tune the instrument that is you. You practice being you. Get to work.


This is the third article in a four-part series on writing better by being curious about yourself:

1 – wander – write better by clarifying your quest
2 – wonder – write better by exploring your fascination
3 – ponder – write better by organizing your ideas
4 – persist – write better by maintaining your focus

5 comments to ponder – write better by organizing your ideas

  • Melissa Frykman-Thieme

    Hi Ms.Grace!
    Your articles seem to arrive just as I’m reaching a new pause to view the grand vista. Perfect timing.
    Each morning brings a mind full of little and a huge opportunity to engage. (Like in Star Trek–“Engage, Scotty!”)
    So, as I engage, an email comes through, near the top of the heap.
    It is sparkling, and shooting come-hither looks at me.
    I read, I laugh, I wonder, then I ponder, and I might not stop pondering today…
    Thank you for your gift of gab, gift of writing know how, and just plain old Gracisms.
    YOur friend, Melissa

    • I love this: “It is sparkling, and shooting come-hither looks at me.” Coming from you — the Queen of Sequins, who knows plenty about sparkle in all its forms — this carries a lot of weight. I look forward to reading something sparkly of yours sometime.

  • Grace, as usual, your words come right at the moment I need them. What I love is your flexibility. I am taking your words in, and determining that I get to decide what finished looks like.

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