The Scientific Method of Creative Writing

It’s funny how things can find you when you need them. Earlier I pulled up a blog that I had written back in 2015 about writing and the scientific method. I wanted to get across a point about the power of experimentation and taking a light touch. I argued that using the scientific method as a writing structure would help with maintaining a light touch. Don’t try to get everything perfect all the time, just question and explore.

The first step in the scientific method is ask a question. Which is kind of the core of every idea. What would happen if…? Good writing, like good science, has to be in service of exploring that what if rather than about forcing the results to a certain end.

To be honest, I’m kind of impressed when I read the idea back to myself. I might not be the first one to draw the comparison, but damn it’s a pretty good idea. It seems like it would make writing a lot simpler.

If you’re not familiar with the scientific method, here’s an outline of the steps.

The Scientific Method

1. Ask a question

2. Do background research

3. Construct a hypothesis

4. Test with an experiment

5. Analyze Data and Draw Conclusions

So what happened? Did you answer your question? Was your initial idea right? 

Do your results align with your hypothesis? Communicate your results.

Do your results only partly align with your hypothesis or miss the mark completely? Communicate your results, and use what you’ve found as background for future research and projects. Sometimes a “failed” experiment is the most helpful kind because it helps you formulate a better hypothesis.

Are you already imaging how this might work as a writing structure? How this might help you not just see a story through, but use the writing structure to help keep from getting caught up in perfection?

Writing Through the Scientific Method

1) Formulate your idea as a question, a what if premise to work from.

2) Do research or foundational work to flesh the idea out. There are a lot of forms this stage could take. It could be more formal research like falling down the wikipedia rabbit hole, conducting a survey or reading a book. It might also include drawing on your own experience as a kind of research.

3) Create a working roadmap for yourself. An outline or a treatment that gets the ideas out of your head and onto the page. This stage could also take the form of brainstorming and idea mapping. This is a living document based on where you think your what if might lead. This pre-writing is your hypothesis, how you think the story will work out.

4) Start the writing! Think of each section of your work as its own experiment that supports but is also independent from the larger whole.

If you find yourself having problems in the story or in the writing process, troubleshoot. Are you being gentle with yourself? Giving yourself room to explore? Are you following the hypothesis you originally laid out, or are you getting off track? If it’s going well, keep doing what you’re doing!

5) Finish the work and look back at what you’ve accomplished. What did the experiment teach you? Do you consider it a success? Do you still have work to do? After you’ve had some time to reflect, cake some decisions. Is it time to revise and edit? Time to archive the file for awhile? Share your work and your experience!

Kind of a great process, right?

But most of the time, that’s not really what my process looks like. Writing certainly works best when my workflow more closely resembles what I’ve outlined above. It’s how I would like to do things, and sometimes I gets close. But I definitely haven’t mastered the combination of excitement and serenity I see as part of that light touch, experimental approach.

I’m still working on it, and trying to remember how well it works. That’s part of what process and structure are about though. They give you something to lean on and come back to, to rediscover. You always get to learn more about them and more about your own work. And that’s a pretty science-y thing, right? To always be learning more?

I needed to be reminded of it now because it’s easy to feel like everything has to be perfect right this instant and get down on myself for not already being at the end goal. It’s all really just an experiment though and I can’t get bogged down with obsessing about perfect or forcing things to be anything but what they are. I have to lean on my structure, trust the process, and trust my own imperfections. Sometimes you discover electricity, sometimes you get 101 ways not to make a lightbulb. It’s all part of the process, and you can’t have one without the other.

Maybe one day I’ll have that totally internalized and I won’t have to be remind, but for now I’m going to work on more ways to remind myself of the importance of experimentation.

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