I started a new regular assignment in my classroom this semester. They are Essential Questions. At the beginning of each week, I present the students with a series of questions that will be answered in class throughout the week. These are key points that I want to make certain that they learn. We check the questions for a grade at the beginning of the following week. Essential Questions make certain that the students catch the most important parts of the lesson (and not just my goofy, off-topic sidebars) and they also make certain that I cover the important, necessary topics. I started thinking, why not apply Essential Questions to writing? Think about it. How often have you started working on some piece of creative writing with a pretty good idea of what you wanted to say, only to look at the finished product and realize that you haven’t ever gotten around to covering the idea that you intended to? Also as likely, you may have wound up with a story of a completely different tone, attitude, or even genre if you happen to start getting away from your original thoughts. Why not take a lesson from school? Write yourself a list of Essential Questions that someone reading your writing should be able to answer by the time they have completed the story. The questions do not need to be highly specific, and they shouldn’t be trivial either. The questions should cover some of the broad themes or general lesson of what you are trying to write. Once you have written out those questions (3-5 questions should be plenty), then you start writing your story. Periodically check back with the questions as you are writing to see if you are still on the same track. Once you are finished with your first draft, go back and double-check to make certain that all of the questions have been answered to your satisfaction. Then you are free to start revising with the knowledge that you have remained true to your original ideas.
Now I am someone that believes in flexibility. I know that my stories will change as I write them and new concepts occur to me or new traits emerge among my characters. That’s fine. Feel free to change your questions if you find that another approach opens new possibilities. The Essential Questions shouldn’t be a straightjacket. They should, however, be like a GPS. You may wind up taking a different route now and then, but they can help you recalculate to still guide you to your original destination. Just an idea of mine. Let me know if you do anything similar or if this works for you.