Lay the Track for Your Train of Thought
Tess Galati, Ph.D.
You’re starting a writing project? Great! Just don’t start spinning out sentences right away. If you do that you’ll invite the gods of negativity to sprinkle nonsense into the process: That doesn’t sound right. Does this idea belong here, or should I save it for later? Boring sentence. Wait…is it ‘who’ or ‘whom’? What comes next? Does that even make sense? Darn. Just start over.
With all that noise, it’s hard to keep your mind on driving the narrative forward. It’s not that you can’t write. It’s just that you didn’t build the thought track before driving the train of words and sentences.
Here’s a secret writers know. Writing projects start with long walks and conscious meditations loaded with the kind of thinking that gets your writing on track. The template for laying that thinking track is composed of four questions: Do I know enough? Do I care enough? Do I care about the reader? Do I dare tell it?
Seems simple, right? Well…take another look.
Do I know enough?
How much do you need to know? If you’re writing fiction, you need to know your characters as friends: What’s their favorite color? What judgments do they make about the world? What are their fears?
For organizational or nonfiction writing, you need enough facts, examples, arguments, history, and data to convince the reader that you, by golly, know your stuff. All that information you marshal is there for one reason only: to bolster your assertions, your main points.
“Y is true,” is a useless statement. Dictators might get away with it, but the rest of us need to provide proof. “Based on X, Y is true,” can be tested and used. An assertion without a basis is a thin reed blowing in the wind. It can’t be tested or developed unless we know what it’s based on.
What if you really don’t know much about the subject but need to write anyway. Get humble! Just because you can't draw grand conclusions doesn't mean you have no conclusions at all. Don’t make big claims that you can’t support. Pare them down to something you can support.
Are you a perfectionist—or even worse, an introvert who veers toward perfectionism? Watch out. You may feel you don’t know enough unless you know everything! You gather more data and make more outlines until you smash into a deadline. If you’re stuck in this sand trap, just start writing a CFD (Crappy First Draft). Write fast and hard until you’re tired. Get the sand out of the wheels of creativity. Then come back the next day to highlight the hidden gems.
Do I care enough?
You have to own the message before your readers want to buy it. It’s got to matter to you that the reader will get what you’re saying! If you’re not passionate about the subject, you need to gin up some passion.
The only way I know to build passion for writing is to visualize, listen, and revise your core statement. Imagine you have one full minute to speak to your reader. See the reader in your mind’s eye and tell them something that’s worth their time and effort. Say it again, but make it stronger. Listen to your statement through the reader’s ear. Say it again, but make it clearer. Say it again. Now make it briefer. Say it until you can see no way to make it better. Now say it until you feel like stopping strangers on the street to say it to them…but please don’t. When you can see yourself yelling the idea from the rooftops, you’ve got what you need: Commitment to a statement that is brief, clear, and strong.
An uncommitted writer throws down facts and ideas that don’t add up to much. Readers can tell when the writer doesn’t care because in the middle of the message neither do they. Have you ever started reading a book and lost interest after a promising first chapter? That’s because the writer’s interest dropped off, too.
The honest truth is that sometimes you have to write something you really do not believe in or care about. Maybe you have to write up your manager’s bad idea, or you’re writing a grant proposal for something that seems trivial. The only way out is to write from the point of view of the person who does believe in the idea. You take on that person’s thinking and become a ghost writer.
Do I care about the reader?
We writers are so demanding! We want people to buy our ideas with their time and their money. Why should they? Answering this question takes some solid thinking and perhaps doodling, so don’t rush it. You need to analyze your readers’ identity, knowledge, attitude and purpose. Here are the questions to ask:
Who are your real readers? If you’re writing within an organization, your readers are those who will be affected by your ideas. If you’re aiming for publication, figure out the sort of person who needs your ideas, who wants the feelings your writing evokes. How old is that person? What’s the life experience that brought them to your writing? This is your target audience. These are your people.
What do your people know, and what do they need to know? Have they already read a lot in this subject area, or are they novices? Think hard about this question, or risk boring them.
Do your readers have reason to trust you? Are they likely to be defensive because you’re presenting a change of thinking? Do they come to the subject already bored because it covers familiar ground? If their attitude is negative or neutral, you’ll need to make the text so engaging that they’ll still want to read.
Specifically, what are your readers hoping for? What do they want to find in the text? In other words, what is their purpose for reading?
There are no shortcuts here. Stop, think, doodle, walk, and doodle some more until you really understand, respect, and empathize with your reader.
Do I dare tell it?
Writing is permanent. In the short term, your message may seem threatening. If you look down the road to seven generations, you realize you probably can’t tell whether future readers will understand or accept your ideas. You might as well be courageous and tell the whole truth as you know it.
I’ve been writing a novel based on my ancestors’ lives, and recently I stumbled upon research that led me to believe my grandfather had a male lover. Should I tell it and risk my family’s rejection? I finally stepped back and asked a bigger question: What would best serve the seventh generation? I decided to tell it.
Here's another example. A friend was asked to report on whether her organization should move a particular department offshore. She concluded that this would be a positive decision from a profit perspective. Then she looked around the company cafeteria and realized the people around her would lose their jobs. She was tempted to skew the data but didn’t want to lose her integrity. She stepped back and decided to take a third course. She wrote about both the financial and humanitarian consequences of moving offshore, and she included the costs of training, transfer of materials, and possible future tax burden to be expected in the future.
In a nutshell, you build courage by considering positive and negative possibilities, clarifying your responsibility, taking the long view, and looking for a third way.
The Bottom Line
Writing is about moving brain cells not just moving fingers. Successful writers have a particular way of thinking about their writing projects while walking through their days. Probably the most critical part of the writing process is keeping our thinking clear.
When you think about it, many of the negative messages writers hear are just hints that a track needs to be laid for your thought train: You don’t know enough. You don’t care enough. Your readers don’t care. They will never understand. You’d better not tell it.
That’s why a template for thinking comes in handy! It takes work to fall in love with your readers, become passionate about your subject, and build the courage to tell difficult truths. When you have that love, passion, and courage, you’ve laid the track for creativity. !
Tess Galati was born in Greece but grew up in Iowa. She created Writing for the Information Age, an award-winning video and print program that was adopted by over a hundred organizations. This article is part of a book now in progress, titled Get It Done Write Now.