So, you’re embarking on a new writing project. You have a sense of the setting, character, and themes. You might even know what your characters get up to (plot) and how quickly the story will roll along (pace).
While it’s good to know what your story is, it’s also helpful to know what it is not, or what styles or approaches you might avoid. Along with your narrative outline and index cards, create a This/Not That list.
I borrowed this idea from Michael Bungay Stanier, founder of Box of Crayons, which teaches busy managers how to coach. (Disclosure: Michael is a Page Two client.) As Michael describes in a recent article, This/Not That “is a short list of paired behaviours” and “an exercise for identifying your best self.” Michael introduced this exercise in his book Do More Great Work, and I’ve heard him speak about it in the context of effective facilitation.
Your This/Not That list for driving a car, for instance, might be
This: calm, attentive, sensitive to changing road conditions, alert.
Not That: enraged, distracted, driving the same way despite road conditions, sleepy.
The list is to the point, descriptive, action-oriented.
Think of how you’d like to approach your next manuscript. This list could capture your mindset or intention as the writer, or the overall feeling of the manuscript. My This/Not That list for a new project looks like this:
This: curious, measured, specific.
Not That: close-minded, shrill, generalized.
I can refer to my list as a guide each day when I sit down to write, and when I feel like I’m moving away from the best version of my writing self.