Puzzling It Out

Conveying information can be tricky. You need to describe X, but in order to describe X, you need to explain Y, which really doesn’t make sense unless one knows about Z. But according to the standard tenets of communications, you can’t lead with Z, because Z is not really what your story is about.

Writers grapple with this kind of problem every day. In recent years, life’s become a little easier for those of us in the information-pushing business, thanks to the World Wide Web. One of the many geniuses of the internet is the way it addresses the X, Y, Z problem: if something needs further explanation, you can just throw in a link. (In print, sometimes a sidebar does the same trick.)

Yet even with these tools, pulling together information that needs any explanation at all is generally more akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle than, say, constructing a tower.

That’s one reason I tend to be suspicious of outlines. A few lucky people have the ability to map out a flow of information completely in advance. But from what I hear, most are more like me. I discovered long ago that writing an outline was a waste of time, because there’s about a one percent chance my finished product will look anything like the plan.

If that sounds like you, too, then give up on trying to outline and start your project by jotting down a loose list of topics to cover.  Then get ready to revise the list as you go. Because there’s another reason it’s so hard to work from an outline:

No matter how prosaic your topic, the act of writing is inherently creative.

Writing is not a mechanical copying down of ideas your brain has already sorted out. It’s a conversation between your mind and your hands. It’s a kind of thinking-out-loud, only in this case, the “out-loud” is the click-click of the keyboard. Significantly, the thinking is not only about how to make your case—about how to get through X, Y and Z without making your reader want to jump out a window—it’s about what your case is, exactly.

Even in the most straightforward, practical piece of writing, there are choices to be made not only about how to convey your meaning but what, exactly, your meaning is.

So the only thing to do is to jot down your list and start writing, picking up puzzle pieces and angling them this way and that to see how they will fit. It can be tempting to try to force a piece into the wrong space. But how much more satisfying it is when you snap it into the perfect spot and the whole picture comes together.

Putting the puzzle together in this slow, deliberate way is a necessary part of the writing process and as far as I know there is no shortcut. But there are a few tips that can help:

  • Read it out loud. (Even if you’re in a cubicle somewhere, you can mutter it under your breath, can’t you?) You will never know exactly how your writing comes across unless you periodically take the time to do this. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it forces you to slow down and notice every word. Maybe it just helps you to listen to your piece the way your readers will ultimately “hear” it. Whatever the case, it works.
  • Print it out. I care a lot about the environment. But I must confess I go through a lot of paper. (I do try to make up for it by using both sides of every piece.) Sometimes, especially if you’re working on something long, you have to get it off that annoying screen and hold it in your hands. If you have the luxury, get up from your desk and take your copy somewhere else to read it.
  • Be brutal. Don’t hang onto words or phrases just because they’re funny or clever or beautifully written. If they don’t contribute to the message, whack ‘em. This is sometimes known as “killing your darlings” and I’ll go into it more in another post sometime. (By the way, thanks to the magic of word processing, you never have to actually kill a good turn of speech. By all means, cut and paste it into a new blank document and save it. It may come in handy another time. Or—more likely—you may change your mind the next time you read your piece out loud.)

The last tip? Know that it is a process.

When you’re in the middle of trying to pull a piece of writing together it nearly always feels hopeless—you’re sure there’s no way out of the mess on your page. But, trust me, every communications tangle has a solution. Be patient and you will find a way to say it.

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5 thoughts on “Puzzling It Out

  1. I too have given up on them: I always end up abandoning the outline halfway through, because I’ve realized there are other things I need to say, or the material isn’t actually in the right order. My husband and son kid me about the endless notes I take in preparation for an 800-word book review, but I find it the best way to–not organize my thoughts, but cement my recollection of the material.

    Nice work!

  2. Very helpful column. I’d add that every communications tangle has more than one solution. There may even be an infinite number of solutions. The key is to try something and execute.

  3. I always write about a 2,000 word first draft for an 800 word column. Sometimes I make an outline AFTER the draft — outlining what I’ve said, so I can see more clearly what’s there and what might better go with what. When I’ve finally finished, I often feel that if I were a better writer, I’d have just written the right 800 words to begin with. But then I recall what a friend said: A sculptor starts with a big block of stone, then chips away until he finds the statue inside. We writers have to amass the block first, then chip away. And you’re right Robin, it does feel like “finding” the statue inside (or the 800 words within the 2,000). At each tangle, I do always feel I’m searching for the solution, the solution that already exists, that must be found — rather than creating it. My idea that there is not one but potentially infinite solutions is just what i tell myself to soothe myself; but it does feel like looking for the one key that fits the lock.

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