Imagine that after you untangle your skies and trudge back to the top of the hill, you see other skiers discussing your disastrous runs.
“Well, that didn’t work,” they say, shaking their heads. “Obviously we need more information before we go anywhere.”
Some skiers traverse across the top of the hill, scanning the slope and consulting maps. They compare notes with friends, but also trust their intuition. They check their bindings and pole straps, roll their shoulders to loosen up and push off on their planned route.
These are the skiers/writers who have found a practical balance of scouting and discovering as they go.
More cautious skiers unfold topo maps and use their trigonometry app or open their hand-held inclinometers to determine the pitch and distances of different routes. They probe with avalanche poles to test the depth and stability of the snow.
They measure, estimate, analyze, calculate, re-estimate, plan, outline, detail, consult guide books and hired guides, create spreadsheets, study videos of both successful and unsuccessful runs, interview skiers who’ve skied this slope before.
What they aren’t doing, you notice, is skiing.
That’s the biggest hazard of over-scouting a route — you never get around to the actual skiing/writing. Too much emphasis on planning and preparation can delay starting a run/project indefinitely.
Over-scouting means you can focus on the big picture or the details, but you won’t have the flexibility to see both. You either can’t see the forest for the trees or the trees for the forest.
If you over-scout, you can mentally and emotionally invest so much in one particular run/outline that you lose your willingness and ability to adjust when reality doesn’t match the plan.
You can get so fixated on using your rational brain to develop a plan that you lose touch with your intuition, which is unfortunate because the rational brain is slower than the emotional brain and misses details the emotional brain perceives.
My fellow Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center Lori L. Lake observed this about students who outline to the degree that I could call over-scouting: “Oddly enough, the outliners always seem so proud (almost sanctimonious) about their lists and charts and character arc templates and so forth, while the organic writers are so embarrassed to be floundering around. [To be fair, skiing into trees is embarrassing.]
But that pride has a price. Lori continued, “I’ve only had two outliners in all my classes who have actually finished their books, though. Sometimes, heavy emphasis on outlining takes the joy – and the mystery – out of the story, and they lose interest and don’t finish. I also think that all the focus on the left brain and being organized can sometimes overrun that soft, quiet creative voice and slow down the creative process.”
Flinging yourself off the side of a mountain or into a novel (or other big piece of writing) without knowing where you’re going is a huge and unnecessary risk. It might work, but in the long run, you almost always end up in the trees.
On the other hand, you can’t stay at top weighing your options and devising plans forever. At some point you have to push off and trust you know enough to negotiate what you couldn’t see and didn’t plan for.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever, you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place?
“Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.
“There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. What one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”