Basic Writing Toolbox

by Neil Fein

We’ve all got reams of terrible prose inside us. Most people simply don’t take the time to re-read, re-write, and improve.

Writers get better at writing by doing it, whether we’re talking about a novel, an essay, or a tweet. But how someone without much of a command of English (or, indeed, any sort of writing) generate a coherent, easy-to-read chunk of text? How do they organize their thoughts to even start?

Below are several basic techniques. Which one you use depends on the length of the document-to-be, the subject matter, and your personal preferences.

All sections here are examples of the techniques they describe. This introduction is an example of the pre-summary, where you tell the audience what you’re going to write about. It’s a staid technique, better suited for slightly longer pieces like this. (This article is coming in at just under 700 words as I type this sentence.)

Outlining

If you’ve told people you have trouble even getting started, you’ve doubtless been told to try this. The basic idea is that you outline what you want to say to organize your thoughts. Here’s my outline for this article.

  1. Introduction–mention options
  2. Outlining–explain, give example (That’s this section.)
  3. Infodump–vomit it all onto the page, organize, edit
  4. The [x]-paragraph essay
  5. Combinations, summary

After getting something like this down, you’d then go back and use the outline as a guide to write the sections.

(Those with keen eyes will notice I didn’t stick to this: After writing this article out, I decided that section 3 would work better after section 4, since it relies on having more experience with writing. But it was a good place to start.)

How do you organize your thoughts into an outline? I just start typing on the topic, typing down anything at all. After a minute, I stop and look at what I’ve done. Delete, edit, revise, repeat. When the outline looks reasonably complete and organized, it’s done.

Please note that I’m saying “reasonably complete”, not “completely finished and polished and perfect.” Nothing ever written is ever perfectly polished and finished. Learn to tell yourself when something like an outline (or a first draft) is good enough that you can move on.

If you have trouble even getting organized enough to get to this point, try jotting down ideas for paragraphs or sections on post-its and shuffling those around to get a decent order. The idea is that this will give you something toorganize.

The [X]-Paragraph Essay

This is a less formal technique than outlining–or shuffling post-its–but one that’s a bit of a straitjacket. Particularly so if your idea doesn’t fit well into the format. We learned the three- and then the five-paragraph essay method in high school; it forced me to learn how to write in an organized way.

In the whatever-paragraph essay, the first type of essay we were told to write, you first write the basic idea. It becomes the first paragraph, and is very much a generalization of the ideas you want to get across. You’re also framing the rest of the essay, creating a lens through which the reader will see all subsequent text. I’m hardly a schoolboy but I still find the technique useful for smaller pieces.

The three-paragraph essay scales well to the five-paragraph essay, and beyond. I wrote this section as a three-paragraph essay, but that middle paragraph really wants to be two paragraphs–but it’s a good place to start. Thinking about writing in this way can discipline you quite well.

Write Like a Madman (but sort it out later)

While writing an outline can help for some people, and having a paragraph structure to follow works for some stuff, these don’t work for everybody or at all times. When this approach isn’t working–I find an outline superfluous for anything less than a few thousand words–an infodump may be what you need.

Type out everything you want to say. Don’t worry about structure yet, just write out all the points you want to make. Then, read it over and decide what the main points are you want to say. Write an introduction and/or conclusion, as appropriate, then organize the rest of it into the “middle” of the piece. Summarize, proofread, and you’re done.

This may not seem like much of a writing technique. What you’re doing here is giving yourself permission to freewrite on a topic, with the knowledge that you’ll organize it all later. Great for short projects or for work that’s more creative.

A Note About Editing

TL;DR version: Editing is vital. Do it, thoroughly. Long version follows:

When you’re done, re-read the thing you wrote. Proofread it, look for places where the writing doesn’t flow well. Most importantly, look for places where what you’re saying doesn’t advance any of your main points and delete them. Delete them with a vengeance.

Everybody hates reading their own writing, because we know what we wrote and tend to start skimming. But if you don’t do some sort of proofing and editing, your writing will be sloppy and careless. Your readers will assume the writing is indicative of the writer.

You’ll notice that as you edit and re-write, your writing visibly improves. That’s why I tend to enjoy the editing much more than the early drafts. (Then again, I’m an editor, so I would.)

Summary

You’ll probably find yourself picking and choosing from these techniques–and possibly others as well. Me, I like the infodump combined with some quick outlining, although I pay careful attention to paragraph length and structure along the way.

Repeated use of a tool inevitably and gradually changes the user. To generate that all-important first draft: Try different tools, use the ones that work, and let them change you. Eventually, you’ll do this stuff without thinking about it. Using disciplines like these trains your brain. Writing will get easier and your first drafts will read better.

And you may start looking forward to your writing time.


Ask Ceil will return to Magnificent Nose on Friday 7 October 2011.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor. On the side, he’s the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides a mean bicycle, and he paints with oils when the mood strikes him.

This article is an expansion of this answer that I wrote on writers.stackexchange.com.

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