Thursday, November 08, 2012

Aim Small, Miss Small

In The Patriot, there is a scene in which Mel Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, heads off a group of British soldiers in the woods with his sons. His goal is to rescue his oldest son who has just been captured and to avenge the death of another son, who has just been killed. Before the action begins, Martin reminds his sons to "aim small, miss small". That line was added during the filming, as the Internet Movie Database explains: "When teaching Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger how to shoot a muzzle-loading rifle, technical advisor Mark Baker gave them the advice to 'aim small, miss small', meaning that if you aim at a man and miss, you miss the man, while if you aim at a button (for instance) and miss, you still hit the man. Gibson liked this bit of advice so much he incorporated it into the movie, just prior to the ambush scene."*

Writers often take what might be called a "broad view" of their writing task. They might set aside a whole day, for example, to "work on the paper" they have been thinking about. When the day begins, they find they aren't really sure what they're supposed to be doing and, predictably, they don't accomplish nearly as much as they had hoped. Even those who set aside a morning to "write the theory section" are giving themselves a big task for a long time. They soon discover that it's unclear exactly what they have decided to do. And even those who sit down and actually write, say, a thousand words at such times, are likely to find that they are not making the sort of progress they had hoped to make. At the end of the day, there seems to be just as much left to say as there was before they began.

These writers need to work on their aim. It is because they are aiming to write a whole paper or section that they find themselves not hitting their targets. Instead, they should be aiming to write a paragraph. They need to set up an "ambush" on their writing problem, and then make sure that they're not just trying to "defeat the enemy" or "rescue their comrades", but to hit the individual buttons on their foes' coats. The key sentence in a paragraph is the point of your aim. You spend the paragraph trying to make that point rather than "saying something" on a certain topic. Even if you miss this narrowly defined "button", you are still likely to "hit the man". That is, you'll end up with about six sentences that support the claim you want to make.

In the tension of waiting for the British to come within range, Martin offers up a short prayer. "Lord, make me swift and accurate," he says. Maybe that's the way to begin your writing session. Define your targets. Aim small. And pray for accuracy. Then, "with wings as swift as meditation", sweep to your revenge!

*For a more detailed unpacking of the lessons of this scene in the movie, see this post I wrote for Jonathan Mayhew's Stupid Motivational Tricks. Unfortunately, the YouTube clip has seen been removed for copyright reasons.

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