Sunday, August 23, 2009

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Writers often mistakenly try to write in whole cloth. Without outlining even the barest skeleton of an essay or article, we expect to compose a draft of flawless text replete with well-placed literary devices and perfect turns of phrase.

This is the writer's version of putting the cart before the horse.

While it's fun to think of all the verbal ornaments and embellishments you hope to use in the piece you plan to write, but it's much more efficient to start by writing down the bare facts and basic elements first. If you need help arriving at what exactly are the key elements of your piece, try telling a friend about your topic. The simple act of verbally walking through your thinking will help you outline the skeleton of the piece.

Another suggestion: on a blank piece of paper, jot down in bullet point form all the facts and details you can think of that are relevant to your subject. This technique is partly a brainstorming exercise (good ideas often beget more good ideas), and partly an organization exercise (as you look over the bullet points you'll see which facts and bullet points should be grouped together, in what order they should be listed, and which ideas should be dropped from the essay entirely).

It may not look like it, but you now have 80% of your first draft completed. Now you can start thinking up tortured metaphors and catchy turns of phrase.

However, you'll probably find your argument to be more powerful when you rely on the simple clarity of your argument rather than verbal ornamentations. A "just the facts" article, with a minimum of embellishment, often makes for more compelling writing.