"TK" Your Way Out of Brain Freeze

This is essentially, Garbage First Drafts, Part II.

Here’s a quote from the writer Katherine Dunn, author of the cult classic Geek Love, about “doing it badly”::

Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes. There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated, or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy. This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze. At times like that the only way out is for me to decide, 'To hell with it. I can't do it right, so I'll do it wrong. I can't do it well, but I can do it badly.' Sometimes, with luck, while I'm sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on a right way.

I love this so much. I've read so many mediocre drafts and produced so many mediocre drafts, in fact, that I'm fully convinced that what separates successful writers from unsuccessful ones is in some respects just the intestinal fortitude to go back and reread the nonsense you just wrote, and then start revising, even if that means a wholesale redo. It’s process that matters, not just inspiration or observational skill.

But Dunn's quote also got me thinking about TKs. TK is publishing-industry shorthand for "to come," and it's a convention used in manuscripts and page proofs to indicate that a piece of the text, or a caption or an illustration—anything, really—is missing. The misspelling is intentional; TK presumably catches the eye better than TC does.

A TK lets the editor, copy editor, and whoever else know that once this something is found/decided upon/formulated, it will occupy the spot where the TK now sits.

So TK is just a placeholder, essentially. But it serves an important creative function as well. When you place TK into a sentence or at the end of a paragraph, you're essentially signaling, to yourself and others, I need to think more here. I'm not quite done.

I'd actually like to see TK used more often, because it's honest about how creative work develops. Whenever you’re working on something important, and by which I mean anything more consequential than a shopping list, sometimes your brain shuts down at a certain point. The words to wrap around something, in Dunn’s words, that is “beautiful, important, complicated, or just plain big” won’t reliably be there when you want them to be. Sometimes you’re better off blowing past that point, and circling back to the problem area later on.

With luck, maybe after a walk around the block or two, you’ll stumble into the right phrasing.

Another possibility: You place a TK in your text and then when you return to swap it out a few days later, you don’t feel like anything was missing at all. Well, then, at least you’ve saved yourself some unnecessary frustration.