Walking Down the Vicious Tangents of Writing
Why it’s so tempting to get off-topic (and how to get to the point instead)
To me, writing is often like traveling on a curved path.
My core message is the first thing I come up with, but I often think it’d be boring if I were just to take a straight line from where I am — a blank page — to that main point.
So I often start off, right away, by taking an angle to that straight line such that I can just curve back to the main point later.
But that doesn’t turn out to be a good idea.
Because when there’s a curve, there are tangents. And, at least to me, it’s so tempting to follow the tangents instead of the curve.
The Vicious Tangents of Writing
Here’s what I think happens:
As I begin writing, my attention becomes narrow; so narrow that when I take my first angled path (see the illustration), it feels like I’m going on a curved path (because that’s the reason I started off with an angle, right?).
What I don’t realize is that I’m prone to take a straight line (i.e. the tangent) of that curved path instead. (Simply put, I’m getting off-topic.)
This is because as I take the angled path, I’m facing towards a different destination. And it’s only natural for me to go linearly towards it, for my attention is currently too narrow that I no longer see my original goal (which is somewhere else).
So I keep walking, thinking I’m curving towards my goal while actually going further away from it as I walk down the tangent.
And that’s not good.
But shouldn’t I, at some point, realize that I’m now too far away from the curve?
Apparently, not so easy.
This is because every time I walk down a tangent of a curved path, I’ll end up standing on another curve (see the illustration). And here’s the thing: it’s so easy to think that I can still arrive at my goal through that new curve.
While it’s actually true (see the more “bent” curve), more often than not, instead of following the new curve, I’m just going to walk down the tangent of that new curve instead, as I did before.
And as I walk down the new tangent, I’m bringing myself to yet another curve; then I walk down the tangent of it, and so on and so forth …
… until I zoom out and realize that each tangent I followed has carried me further and further from my goal (or closer, but unnecessarily lengthily).
Another way of saying all this: My mind can only hold onto one thing at a time. And unless I write my main point at the very beginning, I’ll lose my grip on it as soon as I think of something else — including how to build a narrative towards it.
That’s why the tangents are so slippery.
In many cases, I think of — or more precisely justify — what I’m doing as “avoiding jumping to conclusions too early” in my writing.
But it isn’t. There’s already that straightforward path I could have taken — not jumped upon — and it’s already enough, even if it’s (seemingly) boring.
As Joel Schwartzberg put it in Get to the Point!,
“If the point is received, the presenter succeeds. If the point is not received, the presenter fails — regardless of any other impression made.”
Furthermore, every time I procrastinate on getting directly to the point, I’m merely keeping the readers away from what they need, dragging them with me unnecessarily down the tangents of my story.
Escaping the Vicious Tangents of Writing
The only way to escape these “vicious tangents of writing” is to get to the point.
If I’m worried that getting to the point makes my writing lacks explanations to be understood, I’ll realize it soon, especially after letting the draft “condense” and reviewing it with fresh eyes , whether or not it really needs elaboration (and if so, how).
For that reason, my intro, outro, and everything else in between should take care of themselves.
Another approach I personally use to get to the point is by imagining me being interviewed by a famous YouTuber to ramble about my own ideas, where the editor would, later on, cut the insightful bit and put it at the front of the video as the “hooker”.
That hooking bit, then, would be the first thing I write down.
Anyway, lesson learned: Get to the point.
Building a narrative towards your core message only drives you away from it, unless you state your message first—with ink on the paper.