Progressive Elaboration

We don’t like change.

We don’t like the unknown.

For some of us, we mitigate the unknown by planning. We pride ourselves on being able to see patterns that help us prepare for future events. We plan out the steps, the details, every contingency.

Then things change.

For those of who write, we want to outline, see the bigger picture, plot out the story. Then we sit down and write it out and things change. Grrrr. Or, we sit down write and lose interest because, hey, now we know what’s going on so why bother getting into the details.

In life, we want to know how things will turn out. We want to know that we’ll be safe, secure, cared for. We want a comfortable — if not happy — ending. If this cannot be assured, we don’t want to move.

By MidJourney AI

The unknown might be unsafe.

Here and now is safe. It is known.

But here’s the catch: to grow, to travel, to get to wherever we want to go (literally or metaphorically), we need to accept a degree of unknown. We need to accept that we need to step first, know later.

Progressive elaboration is a term in project management. Until it was explained to me, I was a bit vague on the greater concept, but now I see it everywhere. We can see details in our current situation: we know where we are, know how we got here, and can usually see obstacles in our immediate area. Further away, however, isn’t as clear. What’s around the corner? What will next week bring? What will Bill do when I tell him X? We can’t see things further away (in time or distance). We need to get closer to see the details.

This also works for planning. We can plan that in 5 months we’ll be getting our book back from the editor and will spend 26 days revising the manuscript and will publish and launch the book 32 days later. Plans are glorious because they give us a sense of security. A sense of known.

But then life happens. Work happens. The editor returns with more feedback than anticipated and you spend 2 weeks on the sofa digesting said feedback and wondering if this book is really ready for the world and vice versa, and questioning your expertise, your sanity, and whether or not consuming another bottle of wine means you’re a real writer now or just a wannabe.

Sometimes you can’t plan.

Sometimes you can only plan for a few days in advance.

Sometimes you can plan with intention rather than details and goals.

Most times you need to take that first step to see what the next step will be.

Progressive elaboration is the understanding that the future is vague; that you will need to step into the future with only a limited plan and you can plan as you go. Things evolve. Your plan needs to evolve.

In other words, you are trusting the process. You are trusting that the unknown will become the known. You are trusting that one step will lead to some knowledge, and more steps will lead to more knowledge.

Writers and non-writers alike get hung-up. They don’t want to move. They are afraid to move because ‘what if’…

By MidJourney AI
  • What if I don’t know what to write next?
  • What if what I say isn’t good enough?
  • What if what I do doesn’t get a beneficial reaction?
  • What if I do something bad or not right?

This is all FEAR. Fear keeps people from moving forward in their lives, in their writing.

However, to get over the fear, you need to take a step.

It sounds counter-intuitive to say that to get over not writing, you need to write; to get over not living, you need to live. But it is true.

You can’t know the future. You can’t plan out every detail so that the unknown becomes the known.

To write, you must write.

To move forward, you must move forward.

To see the next step into the fog, you need to take a step into the fog.

It doesn’t matter so much how or in what direction, just as long as you DO SOMETHING. You need the courage (or idiocy) to trust the process and take the step.

So, I dare you. Pick a direction and just take a step. Did things blow up? Do you now see something new? What will happen if you take another step, write another word?

Further Reading

Dean Wesley Smith – Writing into the Dark & Trust the Process – Progressive Elaboration


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