Steve Chatterton
Will Write for Food

Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: a New Approach to Outlining

July 24th, 2017 by Steve

Inspiration hides odd places at times. Like when Euripides took a bath and figured out what displacement was all about. Little epiphanies abound, waiting behind every corner, sometimes in groups of twos and threes, just waiting for us to stumble upon them.

Case in point: I was giving some thought to setting up a sideline copyrighting business, so I Googled something like “professional business writing” and came upon this article at the Harvard Business Review. No, seriously. I had to confirm I was wearing a tie before the page would load.

The page was an interview with grammar and usage guru extraordinaire Bryan Garner promoting his HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. In the interview, he’s asked about his madman, architect, carpenter, judge process which he says “was actually devised by a professor of mine at the University of Texas. Her name is Betty Sue Flowers. And I call it the Flowers paradigm.”

He says the approach is a great way to approach writing reports, memos, or letters, but it took me less than a second to realize this could also be used for creative writing as well, from coming up with a story concept to writing a whole freaking novel.

Here’s how it breaks down, step-wise:

  1. Madman: Think less Don Draper, more babbling idiot. This is the brainstorming session, the “hold it loosely” phase of the project. It’s just you and a yellow legal pad, curled up fetal in the corner with your seven-year pen, a tinfoil helmet on your head, writing down any stray thought that comes into your head. Pickles, astronauts, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, crack babies. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming, although someone reviewing your notes out of context might question your sanity. Make some dots, worry about connecting them later. This phase will give you an idea of what your gut tells you about this story and where you might need to do some research.
  2. Architect: In this stage, you evaluate all the dots from your brainstorming and figure out which ones you’ll really need. Organize your thoughts into simple bullet points to see the true bones of the story. Like the name suggests, you’re building a blueprint here. You can’t live in a blueprint, but you can get an idea of what the finished building might look like. Be prepared to review your bullet points ad infinitum before moving on to the next phase. It could save you valuable time and effort in the long run.
  3. Carpenter: This is the point in the ‘build’ of the story that you call in all your trades. Not just the carpenters. You’re going to need framers, plumbers, electricians, masons, roofers, HVAC–the works. Maybe a landscape architect, as well, if you’re a particularly flowery writer. Go to town on this phase, make sure you’re building a strong, stable structure.
  4. Judge: Here’s where the editing comes in. Allow George Saunders’ proverbial Inner Nun into your head and be prepared to justify every word choice before a tribunal.

In the end, you just might have yourself a serviceable story. Who knows. Stranger things have happened.

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