Marital Differences in Style, Part 2

by Bill Brenner on June 16, 2011

Last week, my wife Erin and I shared some dirty laundry about our differences in writing styles. We’re back for round two. This week isn’t as removed from my usual subject matter as last week, because my approach to writing today is far different from the days when my OCD ran out of control. See Erin’s full post on her blog, “The Writing Resource.”

Mood music (“Right Write Now,” Van Halen):

Like last week, I’m pulling out parts of Erin’s post, which you can find on her blog, “The Writing Resource.” Her parts are in italics.

4. Outline your idea.

I know, outlines are tedious. Outlines are what your sixth grade English teacher made you do for your essay assignment. At this point, though, you should have tons of notes on your idea. If you start writing now, you might quickly get lost in the process: Which idea is most important? What do you think about this point or that argument? What do I really think about what I’ve learned?

I’m pretty sure Bill would say he doesn’t use outlines. Writing one or more stories a day, you train yourself to organize your ideas quickly in your head. It may not be something he writes down, but you’d better believe he’s got some idea of how he’s going to tell his story before he starts writing it.

Five years ago I was a relentless outline writer. I would approach them like a draftsman would approach the design for a house. I would rewrite the outline two to four times. I would send my editors each version, to the point where their eyes probably glazed over.

I’m not sure when I stopped doing outlines, but I’m a lot happier as a result.

Today, when I have an idea or the research and reporting to put a story together, I dive right in. Call it the “ready, fire, aim” approach or the “shoot first, ask questions later” tactic, but that’s how I roll.

I type furiously, heavy metal music grinding away at my ears (I always have the headphones on when I write). Then I go back and see if I left behind any typos and other mistakes. I clean those up and that’s that.

It’s not that I see outlines as a useless exercise. I don’t. It’s that I no longer see the need to write out the outlines. Once I’m ready to write, I already know what my lead paragraph is, and the rest flows from there.

It may be that outlining was a compulsion that went away as I got a grip on the OCD. Or it could simply be that I’ve been doing this for 17 years and I can pretty much write in my sleep.

5. Write your first draft

If you’ve been following this process so far, you’ll actually be writing the fifth draft of your idea. See how far you’ve come in your writing already?

 The more work you put into the first four steps, the easier this step will be. Again, you may not use everything in your outline. You may go back and grab something from your notes. You may discover a hole you hadn’t seen before, and do more research. All of that is fine. Writing can be circular sometimes.

For me, once I’m writing a draft, I try to write it all at once, making notes of where I need to go back if necessary. Everything’s fresh in my mind, ready to jump onto the page. This is where I get really irritated if I’m interrupted. Yet if I’ve got a good outline and I do have to break away from the writing, I’m fine. It might take me a little bit to reorient myself, but I’ve got the road map to get me where I’m going.

Erin and I aren’t that much at odds here. The differences is that once I start writing, I don’t approach it as a draft. I’m going for the kill. I’m writing what I expect to be the final version.

Obviously it doesn’t always work that way, because on the first read back I see things to fix. But most of the time, particularly with hard news stories, there’s a formula that’s etched inside my skull: There’s the lead, the nut graph and the rule from there is that every paragraph that follows must relate back to the nut graph, which the more academic among you might call the thesis paragraph.

6. Read through and rewrite.

Don’t think that because you now have sentences and paragraphs that you’re done. If you can let your draft sit for a day or even an hour, do so. Taking a break will help you see your draft with fresh eyes.

 Read through your draft, and then start rewriting. This is where the art comes is and is what most people think of as writing. Sharpen your focus, tighten copy, play with word choices, question whether you need a comma here or there, think about sentence breaks. Put your words into their best clothes, wash their faces, comb their hair.

How much should you rewrite? Until you’re satisfied with it or until you run out of time. Deadlines can be a great motivator for getting the work done, and they can also tell you when you’re done.

Actually, if I have sentences and paragraphs I am pretty much done. As Erin says, deadlines can be a great motivator and I’ve been living with deadlines since the beginning. Even when there isn’t a real deadline, I write as if there were. When I set a time limit for myself, I’m more likely to bang out cleaner copy the first time around.

There’s no science to this. It’s simply how it works for me.

I do engage in a little rewriting. Typically it involves scouring for basic typos and finding passive sentences to turn into the active voice. But that’s it.

Once it’s out of my head, it’s done.

That either makes me freakishly polished as a writer or just plain reckless.

Writing is a lot of work, and what most people think of as writing is just a small part of it. If you go straight from the idea to rewriting, you’ll end up frustrated and with nothing to show for it. Dig in and do the work, and you’ll be much happier with the results.

It is a lot of work, but the notion that you’ll end up with zero if you go straight from the idea to rewriting doesn’t work for me. I do agree you have to dig in and do the work. You have to do your homework on the subject matter before you write.

If you start writing based on an idea that’s not backed up with solid research, you won’t have much worth reading.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

jj2000 June 16, 2011 at 6:59 am

Bill, I agree with you almost 100%, at least for me personally. I do use outlines for longer documents (ie a white paper, presentation or report versus a short article). But even in cases I start with an outline, once I have a good flow (usually one outline revision only), I go straight through, filling in with complete text. Complete thoughts, complete sentences and complete paragraphs so I can move on to the next item and maintain the flow. I think too many drafts or roughed-in writing leads to bumpy transitions and incomplete thoughts. I appreciate your writing because I can tell you completely wrapped your head around the thought, clearly articulated it, then moved on!

rdl June 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I think you are both saying the same thing but in different ways, and they both work.

“Don’t think that because you now have sentences and paragraphs that you’re done” – resonates with me( being an editor) and i’m going to show this to my 17 yr. old.
Great post!!

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