Writing techniques

I use a variety of approaches to come up with the things that end up in my blogs, bulletins, web pages, etc.  These aren't all of the techniques I've used, but I think these are helpful and easily adaptable to most folks' writing style if you want to apply them yourself.

Extemporaneous jamming.  A lot of the time this is the best approach.  If I'm trying to write conversationally (even though writing isn't a conventional conversation if you're blogging), I've found the best approach is to just pour it out.  No outlining, no notes to expand later, just one word after the next.  I can polish it after the fact; getting the text out naturally is the best approach on the first pass though.

Read it aloud.  This is more an editing strategy than composition, but I've found that reading a piece identifies clumsy wording, awkward grammar, poor word choice, etc.  What usually happens is my mind grabs the proper word(ing) and shoves it through my mouth.  I find myself just taking dictation from myself wherever these incongruities occur.  The spoken word prevails.

Be redundant.  Sometimes a piece is crap and there's no amount of remodeling that's going to help, even though I have a legitimate point to make.  I start from scratch and write something new on the subject.  That usually gets the structure right (which is almost always the problem when I've hit a wall), and then I go back to the original version and cannibalize it for anything I could use: details I included in the original draft but left out of the rewrite, wording that worked before even when the rest didn't, etc.

Thaw it.  Similar problem: It didn't work the first time.  Couldn't get past a certain point, so I put it on ice in a file I revisit only every once in a while.  Sometimes my subconscious has worked through the block and I'll be able to finish what I started.  If not, back to the freezer.  I do this in the short term as well by writing a bit until I'm out of material and walking away from it for a day or two (as with this entry; it was compiled over two or three sittings).  You come back to it with additional ideas and a fresh take on what was already written.

Flesh out the skeleton.  While the details are still fresh from a memorable series of events (e.g., a night on the town, a wedding, etc.), I write down key words to remind me of enough small details that I'd be able to string together a thorough narrative in the morning (or as soon as I can get to it).  If it's a shared experience, sometimes I'll have Dani brainstorm some of these before she goes to bed just so that I have input from two people (I always have her do this after I've made a first pass at it, just to ensure the attempts are independent of one another).  First thing I do after that is to arrange everything in chronological order.  It's all a matter of connecting the dots after that.  The critical step is collecting the dots before they disappear.

Write the outline.  I rarely do this in the formal sense, but with larger projects (i.e., something much bigger than a blog entry such as a book or a thesis), I've found that if I write the table of contents, I just plug things in under those headings.  If I don't have anything under a given heading, I know I have work to do.  Through several iterations of editing, those bits gel into exposition on the topic under each heading, and eventually I have something worthwhile.

Widen the audience.  Most of what I posted in the early days were things that originated as my end of the conversation in an email.  I turned a dialog into straight exposition and then continued talking to myself to the logical conclusion (if there wasn't one already in the material).  One advantage here was that the text was already conversational in tone as well as targeted to a specific audience.  It wasn't just a bunch of notes.

Anecdote makes the point.  Sometimes a story is the perfect illustration of something more generalized worth commenting on.  Malcolm Gladwell does this in most of his articles/books.  You tell the story and then dissect it after the fact such that the narrative turns out to be an equation; the characters, variables; the events, processes at work on those variables, etc.  Alternatively, you could write the equation and expound on that, but why?

Change the format.  Something might start off as a straight first-person editorial.  Then it will turn into something else.  A list.  A fake news report.  An open letter.  Whatever.  Changing the medium means abandoning the approach I began with and thus exchanging one set of freedoms and limitations for another, which is often inspiring.  It also makes the message more interesting to write and usually to read as well.

Copyright 2009 Alexplorer.
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