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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

But Don’t Over-scout the Route

skiers planning route canstockphoto8796935 (2)The previous two posts highlighted the dangers of pushing off a ski slope or a writing project without knowing where you’re going. But there is such a thing as knowing too much.

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.

focusResearching beyond what’s needed muddles your perspective. Your thinking becomes narrow and rigid.

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.

summit canstockphoto1902224 (2)As mountaineer, poet and novelist Rene Daumal wrote:

“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.”

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7 Comments on “But Don’t Over-scout the Route”

  1. playstation 4 October 7, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    First of all I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question which I’d like
    to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself
    and clear your thoughts before writing. I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my
    thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to
    figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints?


    • rosannebane October 7, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

      Hi Playstation 4, Thanks for the topic of next week’s post! I’ll answer your question there.


  2. Haarausfall Frau May 31, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    Pretty! This has been a really wonderful post. Thank you for supplying
    this info.


  3. Nagelpilz Hausmittel May 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    Definitely believe that which you stated. Your favorite reason appeared to be at
    the internet the easiest factor to be mindful of. I say to you, I definitely get irked whilst people consider
    worries that they just don’t recognise about. You managed to hit the nail upon the highest as smartly as outlined out the whole thing with no need side-effects , people could take a signal. Will likely be again to get more. Thanks


  4. Joel D Canfield January 29, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    I’d love to read more about scouting after the first draft. Once I’ve created a certain reality, what methods could I use to accept alternate universes and parallel, but different, timelines?



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