This book is about writing. About getting words down on paper. But it is also about other things because other things go into writing.
It's about strategy. About clarifying what, exactly, you want to accomplish and then devising a plan to achieve it.
It's about thinking. All of the different kinds of thinking required to write.
It's also about managing. Managing your time, your activities, and your thinking as they relate to writing. And it's about managing people, if you write with others or they write for you.
This view of writing is made concrete in a basic six-step strategic approach.
You may find the approach familiar. It draws on techniques for problem-solving and decision-making that many of you have learned elsewhere -- in engineering, computing, or other technical or scientific fields, in business and professional schools, in military officer training. You may already use its methods in your professional work.
All the better. You'll find the approach natural to learn and natural to apply to writing. As one software engineer who uses this approach said, "It makes sense to write like I design a system. Why didn't I think of that before?"
You may find, too, that the approach applies to more than just writing -- to making oral presentations, conducting meetings, planning projects, for example. We hope you'll be like the analytical chemist who told us "I use it for everything; hell, I even planned my vacation with it!"
The book is divided into four parts. The Introduction presents underlying ideas and assumptions. Part 1, the heart of the book, describes six basic steps for writing. Part 2 covers three additional steps. Part 3 adapts the method for varied writing situations and for non-writing tasks.
If you want to get down to work immediately, go to Part 1. If you want more information on the ideas that underlie this approach, continue reading the Introduction.
Develop a strategic perspective. If you want to write well, that's more important than skill in using words. Have you ever read a beautifully written document that addressed the wrong problem? the wrong audience ? left out the main point? The writer -- the anyone -- who has a strong sense of strategy, who knows exactly what he or she is trying to accomplish, knows how to go about it, and knows when they've gotten it right, is way ahead. And is a joy to work with.
Some people are born with a sense of strategy. However, most have to develop it through observation, instruction, and practice. Practice on hard, real-world problems. Textbook exercises won't do.
What, exactly, is a strategy?
A strategy is a structured method for achieving a goal.
Goal, method, structured are key terms in this definition; we'll add subgoal, task, and product. Let's sort them out.
Goals are often abstract, like increasing sales 20% or devising a computer system to help people write better. To be useful, goals must be pinned down, turned into a product or associated with something tangible, something that can be observed.
Most goals are too far away or too big to be accomplished in one step. They must be divided into subgoals so that when all of the subgoals have been accomplished individually, the overall goal will have been reached. But just as an overall goal must be made concrete, so subgoals should be associated with intermediate products. The goal of increasing sales 20% needs a sales plan stating how to do it. The goal of a computer system to help writers needs a statement of users' requirements. Often these intermediate products, the sales plan or the requirements statement, have no value themselves except this: if you don't produce them, you are likely to fail in your long term objective.
Methods are recognized procedures to achieve goals or to produce associated products. Our minds deceive us about methods. Most of us believe that when we sit down to solve a problem or produce some mental product, we just do it. We just invent on the spot the technique we use, or do it the same way as the last time we solved a similar problem. Few of us think about developing general analytical skills that apply to a broad range of problems. A strong, efficient thinker will have a collection of such methods that can be drawn on as needed, but even more important, he or she will know when a familiar method can be applied or adapted and when a new approach must be devised.
Finally, structured refers to the order in which you carry out tasks. Sometimes it doesn't make any difference. Sometimes more than one task can be worked on at the same time, if several people are available or you can divide your attention. But for most large projects, certain tasks must be completed before others. Part of devising a strategy is working out the order in which the various tasks that make-up the project will, or can, be carried out.
A task combines three of these components: a goal, a product, and a method. Without a goal, you are working for no particular purpose. Without a product, you can't tell when you are through. Without a method, you are wandering in the dark hoping the goal will happen. With all three, you have a directed, efficient, and predictable approach to getting something done.
In summary, a strategy is the process of dividing a large task into one or more sequences of smaller ones.
What, then, is a strategic perspective?
A strategic perspective is a way of thinking, a habit of mind. Instinctive or cultivated, it is approaching writing -- and any other activity -- with a strong sense of strategy: identifying clear, precise goals; breaking them into subgoals; consciously using developed methods or devising new ones when necessary; sequencing and scheduling tasks to produce intermediate products and then the final product.
It is thinking on several different levels at once. Seeing the problem whole while dividing it into manageable tasks. Working on each in a focused, directed way but with a strong sense of context and purpose. Consciously ignoring some things in order to concentrate on others.
It is working with a strong sense of self-awareness. Choosing to work in a particular way rather than simply reacting or working in your habitual way. Knowing what you know, and what you must learn or delegate. It is also knowing where you are in the process, how much you have done, and how much is yet to be done.
Such self-awareness can be painful. None of us likes to confront our limits or the amount of work yet to be done. But with this awareness comes control. You are managing the task rather than the other way around. Progress and results are more predictable since you know where you are in the process and which parts must still be built in order to complete the final product.
Most important, self-awareness produces a strong sense of reality. A lot of us are optimists. We think the work is almost complete as soon as we see how it could be done. Many projects spend 90% of their time 90% complete, or so they report. A strategic perspective destroys false optimism, but out of those ashes comes a sense of reality on which true confidence and accomplishment can be built.
Writing requires many different kinds of thinking. Not just verbal thinking, but creative insight, association, analysis, planning and organizing, inference, deduction, even abstract spatial thinking. And, of course, strategic thinking. Since more poor documents are produced by weak thinking than by bad writing, let's look briefly at some of the types of thinking writers need.
Writing is creative, no matter how technical the content or how practical the purpose. There are always other approaches, other ways a subject could be presented. Finding the best approach, or at least a fresh effective one, takes imagination. You can't force it; you have to step back and let ideas happen. Similarly, seeing how to fit ideas together to make a point or to make them memorable requires creativity. Often not a lot, but always some.
Gaining access to knowledge requires associative thinking. If all the information for a document is in your head, you still have to move it from long-term memory to working memory so that you can 'see' what you have to work with. To do this you follow chains of association, one idea leading to another, continuing down some paths, cutting off others that don't seem relevant. It's a pretty mysterious process. We can never be sure that our memories haven't failed us, that some fact isn't buried in there that would draw everything together. Yet, we tend to 'know' on some instinctive level when we have exhausted our store of knowledge and should go to other sources or when additional reflection will be fruitful.
Associative thinking is also involved in gathering material from external sources -- from other people, from files, from printed material, from computers, or wherever. As ideas and data come into our ken, they suggest new lines of inquiry. Again we follow chains of association, from person to person or source to source. Again, we must exercise executive control over the process, not spending too much time on any one point but also not closing too early.
We classify when we group ideas according to some principle of similarity. We use inductive reasoning when we articulate the more abstract point several ideas add up to, deductive reasoning when we divide a point into its constituents. The products that result, the small logical relationships, are conceptual building blocks.
Using these building blocks to create a large, integrated structure of ideas takes another kind of mental skill, sustained hierarchical thinking. First, seeing that two ideas are at the same level of abstraction, or that one is higher or lower in the hierarchy than the other. Then, fitting the pieces together, recognizing what fits and what doesn't, reshaping a piece so that it does. All done abstractly. While inference and classification are natural, instinctive mental acts, sustained hierarchical thinking is more artificial -- learned through instruction or long experience -- and requires conscious effort.
Aiming a hierarchical structure is different from creating it. It involves sorting out from all the possible results the specific one you want to make happen. It also involves empathizing with all the different people who will read your document, to understand what information they need, what they already know, what attitude they have toward you and your purpose, how they are likely to respond to your document or to any action you may want them to take.
And, finally, verbal thinking. This is when you put ideas into words. Give substance to the abstractions contained in the conceptual structure. Name the relations among ideas. Even note ideas or data that are difficult to express in words and decide on an alternative form, such as a graphic or table.
Verbal thinking is not simple. To revise what you've written, you must think like both a reader and a writer. You need to read your document as if you didn't write it. If you find problems, you become the writer again as you correct them. Thus, revising is both analysis and synthesis, reading what you have written, noting problems, and resynthesizing solutions. And it must be done at several levels of abstraction, ranging from the structure of the document as a whole down to individual sentences and words.
You have acquired all these thinking skills at one time or another. We will try to help you develop them further. Think of them as a box of tools. One for every job, some that can be used for more than one, some that are highly specialized. Just as you would use a wrench instead of a pair of pliers or a screwdriver to loosen a bolt, so you should use the right mental tool for each specific job in the overall writing task. Just as a skilled craftsperson knows his or her tools, so you should become conscious of your own mental tools -- which ones you have; which ones you should develop or, perhaps, borrow from someone else; which tasks each is best suited for. Used incorrectly, your mental tools can be ineffective, even destructive, but used skillfully, they can produce results that are effective, predictable, sometimes even beautiful.
Writing requires management. If it is to be done efficiently and effectively, it must be managed the same way. Like the different levels of thinking needed, several different forms of management are required. You must manage your thinking, your activities, your time, and often, your colleagues or collaborators.
We've talked a lot about thinking, all the various kinds required by the different steps of the writing process. You need to keep in mind where you are in the process and what particular thinking skills are best suited for your current activity. For example, when you are gathering ideas and information, you need to think associatively. You need to spend time creating, letting your mind play over the material. Usually, you can't spend all day at it, but you should spend some time in unstructured, undirected thinking to let ideas happen. When you organize your material, you will work much more logically and purposefully. When you write, you need to keep your thinking focused on generating, not on revising. And in revising, you'll work on only one level of editing at a time. Consciously ignore some things that need changing so that you can look out for problems of a particular "size" or of a particular kind. When you do this, you are controlling your thinking throughout all the stages of writing, choosing to think in a particular way in order to accomplish specific tasks, monitoring the time you spend on each -- not too much but also not too little.
Closely related to managing your thinking is managing your activities. Don't try to do everything at once. Concentrate your efforts, get one thing done and then move on to the next task. If you try to gather information, organize it, write, and revise all at the same time, you have no control over the process or what kind of document you will end up with. It could be great, but it usually isn't. By breaking the task into subtasks, by consciously using specific thinking skills for each, your work becomes predictable, controlled, manageable.
As pointed out earlier, writers tend to be optimists. Most of us underestimate the time it will take us to write something by a factor of two or three. However, by managing your thinking and by dividing the overall task into separate subtasks, you can also manage your time much more effectively. After a little practice with the methods presented here, you will know where you are in the process, how much you have done, how much is yet to be done. You will also know which tasks you can accomplish quickly and which ones take more time. Sometimes you will have to put the brakes on your anxiety to get on with your work in order to spend sufficient time planning or mulling over ideas. But you will learn that time spent early in associative thinking or in hierarchical analysis, for example, repays with interest by reducing the time required for writing and revision. All of this will help you make more realistic estimates of how long it will take you or someone working with you to write something.
Finally, writers need to manage the writing of others. Most professionals don't work alone. They work with others in an organization. Frequently they write something for someone else, or they work with several others to produce a joint document, or they oversee the work of others. Group writing requires a special kind of management, particularly if the group consists of experts from different fields. So does delegated writing. You need special conceptual tools to help you integrate disparate ideas, attitudes, and data into a coherent, single conceptual structure. You'll find the tools you need in the approach to writing presented here.
A strong understanding of strategy and how it applies to writing, a diverse collection of thinking skills, and effective management techniques are all needed if you are a professional who writes on the job. You probably have enough of these skills already to get your writing and your work done. This book will help you strengthen those skills. It will help you become a more efficient and effective writer and a more productive thinker.
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