Before Junior year of high school, I was a terrible writer. Terrible. For a given assignment, I’d have some insightful thought in my head, clear as day, and I’d write it down. When the assignment was returned (with a B or C marking the page), I’d read that “insightful” sentence again and it wouldn’t make a lick of sense. The flow would be garbled, the syntax shoddy, and the logic unclear. More importantly, the thought I had written down on paper wouldn’t be the same thought originally floating in my head.
How did things get so lost in translation?
By the time I was working on the NSF GRFP grant in graduate school, I was a much stronger writer. It was while going through that grant writing process that the method described here coalesced. It wasn’t nearly so formalized as this “exercise”. Even now, when I write using this method, I keep things a bit more organic. But this exercise captures the heart of how I think about my writing process.
An exercise for writing a better blog post
Disclaimer: this exercise is time intensive. I still only break it out if I’m writing or presenting in a situation where it’s critical my point it understood. If you want to see the end result of this method in blog post form, check out TODO.
- Think about what you want to convey about your topic. This sounds obvious, but I mention it because I’ve found that if I know I need to write something in advance, I’ll have it floating around in the back of my head, and suddenly important points will make their way to the forefront while showering or drifting off to sleep. To rephrase, give yourself plenty of time. Rushed writing is bad writing.
- Sit down with paper and pencil. Even in a word processor, a computer has too many distractions. Use paper. It provides the least path of resistance to saving a thought. It’s amazing how quickly I’ll have the structure of a sentence in my head, start to type it out, notice some red squiggles under a word, correct the spelling, and forget the sentence structure I had just been excited about. Use paper.
- Write down the main point you want to audience to take away in a single sentence. Without erasing, write it out again using different verbiage. One more time. Stop once you feel satisfied, but writing variations of this sentence is worthwhile. Because this is your topic sentence, it’s important not only that it’s written down as correctly and concisely as possible, but also that you spend time viewing the sentence from different angles. Despite your best efforts as a writer, everyone will read your piece from their own viewpoint and with their own context. Spending time thinking about different interpretations of your point will strengthen your supporting points in the following steps.
- In a step that’s going to feel suspiciously like high school, grab three more pieces of paper. On each of those, repeat step three, but for each of the things you want to support or expand on your original sentence. For each of these sub-points, you should again try to convey your point in a single sentence.
- From here just “start writing” for a while. Write as much as you need about each of these points to explain yourself. Jump around from page to page as you have thoughts, draw arrows as needed, make notes in margins, and write quickly. Wait, what? Without getting side-tracked on a bunch of buzzwords like “flow-state” or “deep-work”, what I mean by “write quickly” is write without friction. Once I have all of these core points in my head, my brain gets into the topic space and I have a lot of complicated and interconnected thoughts all at once. Because I only have so long before an interruption (I get hungry, tired, someone interrupts), it’s important that there’s minimal lag time between the thought in my head and my hand writing it down on paper. Even without considering the hard stop of the end of a writing session, I’ve noticed that in the middle of a writing session I’ll have a clear thought one minute and won’t be able to adequately express it the next.
- If at any point you need to go back to step three and clarify your topic sentence, do it.
- Once you near the stage where you have captured all your disjointed thoughts and what you want to express, you’ll need to spend some time thinking about transitions. Logical transitions are particularly crucial as you connect your three sub-topic points together, but you likely jumped around as you captured thoughts in step five, so also spend time thinking about if each sentences logically leads to the next. I can’t overstate this sentiment enough. It does matter how important your points are if your audience can’t follow your train of thought from one sentence to the next. I’ve lost track of the number of grants I’ve reviewed that are full of good ideas but hurt to read because there’s implied logic between paragraphs or the student clearly did some last minute restructuring and forgot to clean up.
- Write an intro and conclusion. I won’t belabor this point since I’ve found it fairly easy to make the intro and conclusion concise once the middle is finished. Writing a powerful intro and conclusion is a separate post all together.
- At this point, you should have a draft. I’d suggest reading it aloud, and write a second draft using whatever process is most comfortable for you.
- Now, here is where the exercise gets interesting. Here is the challenge: cut the length of your piece in half. Do it without dropping a single concept you’ve captured. If you’ve never done it before, it might sound impossible. There’s no way 50% of your words are superfluous, right? You’ll have to sacrifice a least a few ideas. Wrong. Open your document in a text editor that has a word counter and cut that number in half.
By the time step nine is finished, assuming nine was really completed in a way where you weren’t cutting concepts, you’ll have one of the most cohesive—and therefore best—pieces of writing you’ve ever done. There are two stupidly simple reasons this method works:
- It’s true. 50% of the words you scribbled down while thinking weren’t necessary.
- It takes so damn long cutting those words out that you’ve accidentally spent the most time you’ve ever spent reading over and editing a piece.