Help! I want my short writings to cohere into something publishable!

A question my clients and students often ask: “What can I do with all the bits and pieces I’ve written?” If you’ve written to prompts over a number of years, you may feel like you’ve written quite a bit without gaining traction on creating something publishable. You may wonder Could these writings actually cohere into a memoir, or at least a few published essays? Below I offer some approaches for mining the most significant material out of these writings and start developing essays or memoir chapters.

Step One: Hunt and Gather

I don’t want to lose any of you on this hunting & gathering step! I know that my dread of searching for scattered files could stop me cold here. So let’s not aim for an exhaustive and exhausting rounding up of everything you’ve ever written. Just try to…

  • Locate your most recent physical notebooks (if any) and any random digital files you’ve created from prompts or in-class writings in the last year or so.
  • Search your storage drives with terms like “writing” or “prompt” or the names of writing classes or writing teachers. You also might look by date if you know when you took a certain class, for example. (Looking at your calendar could help you remember when you took class/attended workshop).
  • Create a new “Short Writings” folder on your desktop (or better yet your cloud storage, such as Google Drive) and start moving the files to this new location.
  • Even if you find just a small fraction of your scattered writings, that’s good enough for now. You can always chip away at this project and you don’t want to get bogged down at this stage. (Some of us will use organizational tasks as a means for delaying writing–you know who you are).

Step Two: Label those Flashes of Gold

  • Skim through the writings looking for powerful lines and paragraphs–those places where you hit something that feels urgent and essential. Try not to reread everything–just cruise above at a fairly high altitude scanning for stuff that seems most exciting while also getting a general sense of the content of each writing.
  • When you see something you think has potential, turn down a corner on the handwritten page or relabel the file with the letter P (for potential) at the start of the file name: Writing Jan 13 2021 becomes P Writing Jan 13 2021.
  • Make a master list of pieces with potential and list their themes, using a notebook, Word document (saved in folder with writings) or download this Creating a Story Inventory spreadsheet (Click on the blue “Use Template” button in top right corner and save a copy).
  • Highlight the lines or passages you find most exciting, the flashes of gold. Make a note in your master list of the themes and topics in those pieces that show potential.

Step Three: Develop One of Those Great Starts

Try using one of the approaches below to create an essay or a memoir chapter:

  • Pick the short writing that excites you the most and just keep going. If you’ve written 400 words, see if you can turn it into 1000 words. If the writing is a narrative passage, write the next significant chronological scene. If it’s exposition, what else do you want to say about this topic? What story from your life might support the points you’re making? How could you dig in deeper and be more vulnerable? What is a related experience you could share? For example, if you’re writing about isolation, when is another time in your life you experienced isolation or what’s an image of isolation you could write about?
  • Choose an image, character, setting, or emotion from the piece and brainstorm two other incidents/moments/stories that feature that image, character, setting, or emotion. For example, if there’s a significant apple tree featured in the piece, brainstorm two other stories about that tree. Or if it’s a story about your uncle, list two other stories about him. Now write for twenty minutes on one of these occurrences. Next, write for twenty minutes on the next occurrence. Now look at the three pieces. Could they be placed together? What if you rearranged their order? What if you split one of the pieces up and wove it in throughout the body of a piece that combined the other two writings? This structure and approach is essentially triptych writing, which I talked about in this post (and in the book Writing Is My Drink).
  • Pick a descriptive piece of writing that lacks narrative and urgency. Insert into the opening paragraphs a problem or worry you were experiencing at the time that descriptive passage is set. Now that you’ve introduced the first element of dramatic structure–a problem–into the opening, can you see places where you could return to that story throughout the passage? Maybe you could create an essay that alternates back and forth between the narrative and the description?
  • Select two or three pieces from your master list that cover the same theme or topic and consider how they could be combined.

I hope this post inspires you to start finding connections between your short writings and developing them into essays and chapters. Obviously, you won’t be able to roll all of your short writings into a larger work. But no writing is ever “wasted.” All the writing you’ve done was time spent connecting to your voice and vision and developing your skills.

If you’re looking for places to submit essays, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you a downloadable list of interesting publications.

Looking to do some more prompts or develop your online presence as a writer? I’ve got two classes coming up in May you might be interested in:

Upcoming Classes

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
This entry was posted in More Stuff for Writers, triptych, writing advice, writing prompts, Writing Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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