write, by the trial

write, by the trial

Ben Tomhave posted a GREAT overview of what he calls The Writing Funnel—his method of organizing thoughts into publishable content.  If you have not already read his post, you should stop by the link above first.  A ten minute read and well worth it.

Ben describes how a thought becomes content in his “Falcon’s *-line (star-line) Approach to Writing” as three unique steps: Offline, Tagline, and Outline.

For the majority of my writing, I use both the Offline and Tagline concepts in almost the exact same way.

The Offline concept for me works well in a couple of areas, such as working on a plane without Wi-Fi, or in a place where I cannot (or do not wish to) connect to the internet.  While Ben prefers TextEdit, I typically will use some kind of word processor or authoring tool.  For my articles and for the book, I use Scrivener almost exclusively.  It’s actually gotten to the point where I have writers block for my column if Scrivener is not open.  I wrote the majority of my content for the book in Scrivener as well.

For the blog, I tend to write inside the authoring tools provided by the software (with some exceptions).  Something about setting up my environment to write helps the content flow more freely with the appropriate tone and voice.  For those times when you just need to quickly write down a brilliant idea that popped into your head on the subway, get a Moleskine.

The next concept, Tagline, helps me stimulate ideas and frame a concept for an article.  For example, I thought about The Art of the Compensating Control for a good nine months before the article came to be.  It wasn’t until I thought of how my team and I actually create them (using a mix of art and science to come up with something that is both reasonable and acceptable) that I had the framework to convey my ideas properly.  Thus, The Art of the Compensating Control was born!  Once I had the title, the style and content flew out of my brain over a two day period.  Keep in mind, that’s not constant writing, it was probably two hours each day of brain dumping, followed by many hours of rewriting.

As far as Ben’s last concept, Outline, I rarely use it.  Sometimes I will create what I’ll call Mini-Taglines throughout the article to help drive my thought process, but those would assemble themselves as a pretty basic outline.  Those Mini-Taglines often become headers to break the article into sections that make the entire concept easier to follow.

I’m not a fan of outlining.  Some people need outlining to get their thoughts straight before they can write.  I work differently.

I sat down yesterday to write the next edition of Herding Cats. I typically start that process by opening Scrivener, creating a new container for my content, and then typing in the theme for the issue in the notes area (next month is Application Security).  Once the administrative work is done, I will let the topic simmer in my brain for a few minutes before I think of an angle.  For me, this process typically takes about five minutes.  Then I start the brain dump.  Those of you who have read Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing, you will recognize this as a hybrid of how he writes.  He comes up with a situation, and then tells a story.  King does not know how the story will end until he gets there.  That’s how I write.

Writing!, by Markus Rödder

Writing!, by Markus Rödder

Sometimes the ideas don’t come very fast.  I’ve had sessions like this, and I learn to fight through it by writing down the incomplete thoughts that just won’t materialize into an angle.  This way I have some ideas that I might be able to turn into an article or blog post later.  Think of this as my application of the funnel to fight writers block.

At the end of my writing session for the column (which has a 750 word target), I like to end up with around 1,000 words.  When I started writing I had no idea where my thoughts would take me, yet I ended up with a solid first draft that I can then pass to the next step—rewriting1.

This is my favorite part of the writing process, but is also the most difficult.  I try not to do too much editing while I write the first draft.  As you practice writing and learn more about the constructs of your language, you will find that you will edit more in your head before the content hits the page.  My first draft today is like my third draft was two years ago.  It’s still not what I want to ultimately publish, but a damn fine start.  During this phase, I cut my word count down to the target for the column.  I do this by rewriting sentences concisely, or by eliminating sections entirely.

I don’t rewrite immediately.  The first draft needs to simmer for a while.  I need my subconscious mind to reflect on what ended up in the draft, so that when I come back to it another day my rewriting session is more effective.

Keep in mind, rewriting is not starting over from scratch, but revising the draft to make it better.  Tighten it up, fix apostrophe usage and pronoun agreement (Thom Barrie, ISSA Journal Editor, will tell you this is what I screw up the most), and generally revise to make my thoughts clearer.

Some tips for your rewriting process:

  • Remove meaningless strings of words like “It should be noted that,” “it is interesting to note,” “I might add,” and “due to the fact that” from your writing.  It makes your writing sound pretentious and just pads your word count.  Don’t insult your reader.
  • Check for pronoun agreement.  The trick I use is to search for “they” and “them” and make sure that I am referring to a plural pronoun.  Otherwise, I replace it with he/him, she/her, or it.
  • Don’t write in passive voice.  Nouns (subjects) should act (verb) on things (objects).  Things (objects) should not be acted upon (verb) by nouns (subjects).  Passive voice has its place, but it can sometimes needlessly pad your word count.  While working on the book, a previous author wrote three whole paragraphs in passive voice.  Every freaking sentence.  That’s painful.
  • Don’t abuse sentence length.  If you have fifty words in your sentence, try breaking it up.  You can probably convey the idea more clearly by allowing your reader to take a mental breath.  Conversely, if the longest sentence on your page is seven words, you might be writing a bit too staccato which can sound like a second grader recalling how he spent his summer (note HE instead of THEY).
  • Aim to write at a sixth grade level.  You are not insulting your reader by putting the thesaurus down, you are making their life easier while they read your ideas.  Consider that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address contained 701 words, 505 being one syllable, 122 being two syllables2 and you realize that it’s better to say something smells good rather than refer to it as a delightful olfactory celebration. If you want to flex your knowledge of the English lexicon, do it over a crossword puzzle.  Remember, not all of your readers consider English their first language!
  • Check apostrophe usage.  “It’s” is a contraction for “it is”, while “its” is possessive.
  • Read your writing aloud.  Sometimes this will alert you to possible sentence construction issues that your brain cannot normally detect by reading silently.
  • Avoid colloquialisms and clichés where you can, and make sure you know what your words mean.  I crack up every time I hear a sales person say “Vendor Agnostic.”  Agnostic does not mean what she thinks it means (SHE vs THEY) in that context.

Even with these tips, it’s helpful to have a second eye read over  your work.  You will never catch every little error.  The goal is to get as many as you can so that your point comes across clearly.

Some additional resources for the student (like me) of the English language:

I know everyone’s brain works in their own special way, but the key is to learn how to work with yours efficiently.  Ben has his funnel and I have my brain dumps.  The most important thing is to learn which techniques work best for you!

This post originally appeared on BrandenWilliams.com.

  1. point of reference, this blog post started with well over 2,200 words and is published as 1,529 words []
  2. William Zinsser, On Writing Well, p. 68 []