Think first, write later


 “Poirot,” I said. “I have been thinking.”
“An admirable exercise my friend. Continue it.”
― Agatha ChristiePeril at End House

Have you ever responded to an offensive or distressing email without thinking first?  “WHAT?!” you say to yourself, as your fingers agitatedly skim over the keys and, without a second thought…Send. Moments later, you could kick yourself for having been so impulsive.

This has surely happened to all of us, at one time or another.

Or perhaps, as a student, you were seated for your mid-term essay exam and you skimmed the questions quickly, then proceeded to write feverishly because the clock was ticking and you wanted to make sure that you had enough time to answer all the questions. It was only after you handed in the test, that you realized you missed the second part of the question because you didn’t take the time read carefully and organize your thoughts.

Mea culpa, mea culpa.

In the writing world, however, the process varies from writer to writer.  Not everyone likes to adhere to the “think first, write later” principle. Many writers just sit down at the computer (or, if they’re traditionalists, with pen and paper), and write. Then they edit. Stream of consciousness writing works for many and these are the writers who, when at home, probably don’t write shopping lists or who prefer not to structure their time rigidly. They are the free thinkers.  Write first, think while writing, and then edit later.

However, there are just as many writers (myself included) who prefer to organize their thoughts, prior to writing them down.  They do this by notes, index cards, outlines and also by just thinking (or daydreaming) it out in their minds. 

I am a great proponent of outlines.  My book writing process always commences with quiet contemplation… to think carefully about what I want to say and why, who will my readership be and how will I engage their attention. From there, I craft an initial Table of Contents which serves as my starting point and basic outline.  I then begin the initial research process (when research is required for the book) and the results of my initial research prompts me to write a more detailed outline which helps dictate the overall flow of the book. At that point. I move to a more advanced stage of research, finetune the outline further and then I am ready to sit down and write. I prefer to think first, write later. I carry a small  Moleskine reporter’s notebook with me wherever I go, to jot down thoughts. The challenge is being able to read my own messy handwriting later!

There really is no right or wrong process. Ultimately, the objective is to write.  How you get to that point is subject to whatever works for you.

So, think on the fly or  think in advance, but just make sure to carefully review your writing first before pressing that “Send” button!


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Always do your research

“By seeking and blundering, we learn.”

~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet, novelist and dramatist.

Good, thorough research is a critical part of the writing process — regardless of whether the book you’re writing is a work of fiction or non-fiction. There is nothing more damaging to a writer (aside from plagiarism!) than to misrepresent a technical, geographical, or historical fact.  A word to the wise:   always assume that your readers are smart.  They may possibly lose interest at the first blatant mistake.

Research, if done properly, will likely take more time than actually writing the book.  It may seem like a gargantuan effort but, in the long run, it will be time well spent.  Hopefully, the following research tips and tools will help to make the process less daunting.


  1. Compile a list of all the areas in your book that will require additional research, outside your own personal area of expertiseThis list will not likely be exhaustive because as you navigate through your book, you will no doubt feel compelled to add to the research. A word of caution:  since most writers are avid readers and information seekers/gatherers by nature, it is easy to forget that “thorough research”  does not mean “excessive research.” Don’t get carried away. Remember, there’s still a book to be written!
  2. Develop a research methodology or strategy. This will assist you with categorizing your research and will save you a lot of time.  Decide how you want to handle your primary and secondary sources. When interviewing a source, determine in advance what questions you want to ask. Do you want to quantify your research over a period of time? Should you segment your research — chronologically, by theme, by geography, by chapter, or by subject matter?  Personally, I favor the “by chapter” approach.  I write very detailed outlines (for each chapter) and use the chapter outlines as a guide to determine the primary and secondary resources that need to be gathered.
  3. Compiling the research. Whilst there are many writers who function quite well in a state of “organized” chaos, I strongly recommend a more streamlined approach.  There is nothing more annoying than misplacing interview notes or a critical quote citation!  Many writers use several sets of index cards (one set for note taking, another for bibliographic info, and so forth). The cards can be color-coded by chapter, theme, or subject matter. I suggest that they be stored in small folders or pouches, so that nothing gets lost. Another option is to tack them to an easel, storyboard or wall.  In lieu of index cards, a notebook and folder will do.  Moleskines are widely used by writers.  Of course, you could always opt to go paperless.  A digital voice recorder is a must-have for face-to-face interviews.
  4. Information dissemination.  Again, you have to know where to draw the line.  Carefully pick and choose the most relevant information from that mountain of research material you’ve gathered and put the rest away.  You don’t want  your book to be a regurgitation of facts and figures. 
  5. Citation, citation, citation.  Although your book is a unique and creative endeavor, do not take liberties with other people’s words.  Quote your sources accurately.  And remember, there is a fine line between paraphrasing and plagiarism (more on that in a later blog post), so do be careful.
  6. Where to get information? As you know, the Internet is a vast cyberlibrary …. however,  you have to be very discriminating as to the reliability of  site/source.  And, then, nothing beats spending a day at the library (with books that you can touch and feel!).  The archives found in most University, public, and private libraries contain a treasure trove of source material.  If the information you seek is historical in nature, contact/visit the appropriate historical society  — a great source for historical maps, documents, photos and diaries.


Internet: In addition to the standard search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, AskJeeves), here are a few additional sites that may be of help: – unlimited, free access to books, famous quotes/proverbs/maxims.

Google Books – free access to full or partial text of  print books (and out-of-print books).

Encyclopedia Britannica – ahhh, I used this all the time … back in the ’70’s!  This is the online version.

Wiley Online Library – great for historical research. – a good genealogy source.

Software Tools:   To help organize your bibliography and reference citations (especially helpful for writers of non-fiction), you may want to check out Bibus bibliographic database software or EndNote. If your research involves any quantitative analysis, software programs such as Excel, Paradox, SAS or SPSS will be helpful.

I will sign off with this great quote from Ray Bradbury:

“You must write every single day of your life…You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads….may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”