On Thursday May 17, Shakirah Dawud and I held our bi-weekly tweet chat, Writing Matters. In past conversations, we focused on the Writer’s Triangle, discussing matters of context, author, audience, and purpose for professionals who write. In this edition we talked about process, specifically the beginning stages of writing a document.
Shakirah and I are responsible for very different document types and that affects our writing process. Obviously for small documents, whether they be emails, memos or short articles, a few moments of quiet contemplation can set you on the right track. Those first three stages of the writing process – brainstorming, selecting, and arranging – are easy to do mentally when the document is short. For longer documents, a more formal process is useful. Shakirah for example writes white papers, research reports, and ebooks, and for those she usually compiles smaller pieces of writing that she’s done in preparation for the large report.
In other words, Shakirah puts the arrangement piece first, seeing the topics as separate pieces waiting to be conveyed to her audience. Then she considers the elements of The Writing Triangle, most importantly her audience, to decide how to convey the information in a way that will be most compelling to them. She defines her process in a little more detail in an article called “Copywriting Process? What Copywriting Process?”
My own approach to writing is a little bit schizophrenic because I am responsible for documents of radically different types. In my own work as a literary scholar, I write journal articles of approximately 30 pages. I also teach government scientists how to write scientific regulatory documents that range from 45 to upwards of 300 pages. So I have a number of tools that I use for brainstorming. And the key to any one of the tools is to be sure to capture language along the way so that when the process of selecting, arranging, and most importantly writing begins, I have the words to work with and not just vague, remembered thoughts from a conference call.
One area that’s particularly challenging is something called the literature review. Should I conduct it at the outset of my brainstorming process or after I’ve reasoned my way through the argument? Sometimes I find that the literature review is a way of generating ideas, finding useful things to say, and opening up possible avenues of research and discussion. At other times I find, particularly if I’m engrossed in an idea or if I have a line of thought firmly implanted that the literature review detracts from my own thought process. I find it challenging to see how I’m going to weave other people’s ideas into my own text. And so it actually becomes a source of writer’s block for me.
To cope, I parse my reactions and opinions from those that I find in the author’s text. I also make sure that I allow myself lots of time and space, often going on long walks while I dictate my own evolving reactions to the argument that I’m trying to present.
Finally, Shakirah and I talked about a less disciplined, more free-flowing technique called cubing, which is one of many techniques that I teach designed to loosen up a writer’s own approach towards an idea or topic. Cubing is an approach that asks you to see a topic as though it were inside of a three-dimensional cube, and then place yourself on all six planes as though you were six different categories or groups of people looking at the topic from a different perspective.
So for example, if you’re a government biologist charged with writing a biological assessment of the red-legged tree frog, you would imagine that the red-legged tree frog is suspended inside of a glass cube, and you’re outside of it being a government biologist.
If you move to another side of the cube, you are now one of the many aspects of the ecosystem in which this frog resides. Perhaps you are one level in the food chain above the frog, dependent upon this frog as a food source. Now on the third side of the cube, you are one level below the frog on the food chain, and the frog is a threat to you and your family.
On the fourth side of the cube might be other aspects of the ecosystem that are affected by the frog. Maybe its nesting habits clear some waste from a pond area. Maybe it excretes a waste that is beneficial to plant growth. Or perhaps it’s a dangerous, invasive, or injurious species.
And then on the fifth side, think about the people that inhabit that ecosystem. Are they benefitting or not from that frog’s presence? Does the frog make an irritating noise that keeps them up at night? Is there a developer trying to create a housing development and that frog’s presence is blocking his or her access? Would that development benefit the community in which everyone lives? And then the sixth side might be future generations that could possibly benefit from knowing this frog, its habits and behaviors, and its beauty, its special place in our world.
Now, as a government scientist, you may be charged with neutrality that disallows these considerations from your final decision. But during the brainstorming stages to at least acknowledge that those factors exist and to consider whether they can or should be taken into account is a valuable exercise.
How do you wrap your brain around the complexity of a big writing project? We’d love to hear from you! And remember, our next #WrMatters Tweet Chat will be May 31st at 4 pm ET. Please join us as we continue the conversation. We understand that your writing makes a difference, and we’d like to support you.