by Leigh Cheak
As a writer, your ideas are all in your head, and the job is to wrangle them out and get them onto the page for other people to read and experience. But all writers know that it’s not that simple.
Sometimes, you have to hook those ideas and pull hard. Sometimes, they come out like the slow drip from a faucet. And sometimes, they roar on out with the force of a waterfall. It’s tangled and messy, and first drafts are usually awful. (“Shitty”, according to Anne Lamott.) And sometimes, we need to get out of the muck and see our work from a different perspective.
I like a road map to help with arranging my writing. I like to see where I’m going and plot my course. So I grab a pad of sticky notes. Whether you’ve got ideas but don’t know where to start, you’re waist-deep in a story and can’t figure out where to go from there, or you’re at the end but it’s just not adding up, the answer (at least for me) is sticky notes.
I believe sticky notes can save your writing at any point in the process.
Let me explain.
- They’re small, so you can only write main points/details. This forces you to summarize and only write the important stuff.
- They’re sticky. You place them down somewhere, and they stay put. No wind or animal tail sweeping it off your workspace.
- They keep their sticky pretty well, so you can move them around and stick them elsewhere.
- They’re colorful. If you’re a color-coding champ, you can use different colors for main points, specific details, certain characters… your imagination (or ability to organize) is your limit.
Why bother with sticky notes?
When you’re in the story or an essay, it’s easy to get lost and not know where you’re going. Using sticky notes helps to pull that focus out and see things from a macroscopic viewpoint. From there, you can see the progression of events/ideas and decide how to best arrange them. And the wonderful thing about this organizational method is that you can use it to start writing, while you’re in the writing, or after as an editing tool. By pulling out and viewing the progression from an aerial perspective, you can make more informed decisions about where the writing is going and what makes the most sense to go where. You can see potential holes, or disconnected ideas, and figure out how to patch them in or circumvent them. You can also decide which darlings need murdering.
Because they’re small and sticky, it’s easy to manipulate them into new configurations to try new things. Feel free to play! You can easily undo anything that doesn’t work out. It’s not so easy to do that with Word or written pages.
And the sticky means that you can plot your storyline, leave it be, and then come back to it in the same arrangement (unless little goblins mess with it while your back is turned). You can even use wall space to organize your notes because gravity has less jurisdiction with the sticky. Space-saving and writing-saving—sticky notes really are unsung heroes!
When in doubt, use stickies
Stickies can help you decide if you want your story to be linear, or if it’s best to jump around in time and/or perspectives. And if you have a new idea, slap it on a new sticky and find a place for it. The size of your sticky web is limited to you and how many pads you have.
Need to get somewhere, but there’s no clear transition? Lost sight of the conflict? Boom. Sticky. Write your ideas down. Crumple up the ones that don’t work. Or maybe just move it elsewhere and come back to it. I like to keep a sticky graveyard for ideas, just in case one happens to have good resurrection material. Especially if it’s a long piece that I’m working on over a lengthy amount of time.
When I use stickies, I feel like I’m assembling the pieces of a puzzle and then making them fit. I enjoy the tactile pieces and moving them around to see what makes sense where. It’s a fun way to manipulate your story without being trapped by the blank page.
Two Camps: Plotters and Pantsers
I totally stole these two terms from my dear friend, Justine Bylo, who’s also written for WITS. We both identify as Plotters, and we like to use sticky notes from the get-go. We’re also type-A perfectionists (surprise!). When it comes to writing, we like to know where things are going and make logical moves from point to point until we get to the end. I know many other writers are the same, and like to have things thought-out and organized while writing. It’s comforting to have an outline and know that we’re writing towards the next pit-stop instead of the very end of the journey. Using sticky notes help us to line up our plots and chart the course. We make small steps of progression until the end.
Our opposites are Pantsers: writers who fly by the seat of their pants. These writers often have no idea where a story is going, but trust that they’ll get where they’re meant to be. I sort of envy these people, because they can have some wild adventures along the way. They’ll find sticky notes helpful in the middle or end of the writing, when they’re stuck and need direction, or when they’re looking at a tangle of words they need to make accessible for readers.
For Pantsers, sticky notes can get them out of the thick of things so they can see the map and that can guide them to streamline things to make the most sense. They might not need help getting started—they know they’re in for something amazing—but they might need some help with putting the ideas in the most logical order, or finding the holes that can trip up readers.
So whether you’re a control-freak plotter or a free-writing pantser, sticky notes can help you anywhere in the process.
I recommend you use the KISS method with your stickies: Keep It Simple Silly. Make sure each sticky only has one point/idea. You want to be able to move the separate parts around. And remember, just because it makes sense in your head does not mean that it will make sense to your reader. Arrangement is key. If a reader can’t follow you through the journey they’ll likely give up, no matter how awesome your dialogue, action, or description.
Are you a Plotter or a Pantser and what stage of writing would you find using sticky notes most useful? Have you done something similar to help with your writing? What’s the most challenging part of writing for you? Let me know down in the comments!
* * * * * *
Leigh Pierce née Cheak is a poet/writer and editor living just outside of Nashville, TN with her new husband and her two fur-babies, Mila and Misha. She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing at Western Kentucky University. Her poems have appeared in The Poetry Gymnasium, 2nd Ed.; Wildflower Press’ Anthology: Wild Voices, Vol. 2; The Windhover; The McNeese Review; and Beecher’s Magazine, among others.