Episode 70: February 17, 2009
by Stever Robbins
Today's topic is keeping a longer piece of writing coherent. The quick and dirty tip is to use collapsible tools like outliners and mind maps to view your logic at different depths (see this episode for more on mind maps).
I’m writing a book. Much to my surprise, it’s harder to write a book than a five-minute podcast. With the podcast, it’s easy to keep the whole thing in mind at once. But with a book, it’s different. It’s so big that there’s just no way to keep it all in my brain at once time. And working on it for months and months… I get so distractable that anything shiny or sparkly totally grabs my attention. Like, for example, sun glinting on the three feet of freshly fallen snow outside my office window. Come to think if it, it’s beautiful…So hypnotic. I could watch … it……. for……. hours……..
Your Main Idea Is Where You Start
The only way to keep a whole book in mind at once is to simplify, simplify, simplify. I need simplicity. Scientists say people can keep seven plus-or-minus two things in mind at once. Not me. I’m lucky to keep one plus-or-minus two things in mind. So my wonderful, 295 page first draft really amounts to: “Life can be easy.” Everything else is just details, and at last, I can hold the whole book in my brain at once!
Subtopics Give Details
My publisher heard my one-liner and laughed in my face. “Do you really believe life can be easy? You’re nuts!” I had to expand on the idea for him. “Well,” I said, “If you learn to deal with your own brain, you can make your internal life easy. And if you learn to make projects easy, you’ll be able to reach your goals. Then all that’s left is making organizational life easy, relationships easy, and your career easy. Self, projects, organizations, relationships, and career. It even spells SPORC, which is really easy to remember. So see? Life can be easy.”
He wasn’t convinced, but lo and behold, SPORC became the major sections of the book. I can review those topics over and over, and they make perfect sense to me.
Then I can focus in on each of those sections. If I can come up with subtopics beneath those that tell a coherent story, then that section can stay comfortably in mind. By repeatedly looking only at a given topic and its subtopics, I can evaluate the logic and flow of the book without getting lost in the details.
Collapsible Idea Organizers Help You Think
Long-time listeners will know I often eschew computers in favor of pencil and paper. (I feel almost like a liberal arts major, using words like “eschew.”) In this case, however, computers can come to your rescue in ways that will be the envy of your Pilot G-2 05 mechanical pencil.
Grab a program that supports collapsible outlines. That means it will just show you the levels of the outline you want to see. If you tell it to show you one level, you see all the major headings. Two levels shows major headings and subheadings. Three levels shows headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings. And so on.
Now write your paper in phases. First show just the headings and enter the headings of the sections of your paper. Now read them straight down, as if they, themselves, were all you had. Do they flow? Do they tell a story? Are they coherent? If so, then as long as the text you put under them is all related to the heading, the final paper will flow, too.
The major headings for this episode tell a short story. Writing needs organization (that’s the intro), your main idea is where you start, subtopics give detail, collapsible idea organizers help you think, reviews at different detail levels keep everything flowing, and every platform has outlining tools.
Reviews at Different Detail Levels Keep Everything Flowing
Once your major headings flow, expand your outline to see the next level of subheadings. Make sure the subheadings below each major heading tell a story or make an argument that supports the heading they are under. Again, even though the subheadings may just be a few short sentences, if they flow logically, then your final report will also flow.
Keep reviewing each level of detail until you get all the way to the paragraphs and text. By this time, you know all the higher-level logic fits together nicely, so you can put your attention just on writing the text that goes beneath each heading.
Every Platform Has Outlining Tools
My favorite tool for reviewing my writing at successive levels of details is the Mind Manager mind mapping software. It also lets me export my finished mind map as a prose Word document. I have written my entire book in Mind Manager and this episode’s transcripts links to my initial mind map for this episode. You can expand and collapse it to see the logic at different levels of detail.
Microsoft Word supports outline mode. Look at the View menu or tab and show outline mode. Once you’re in outline mode, you can adjust how many levels of outline show at a time. If you prefer free software or live on Linux, the free Open Office software suite duplicates the functionality of Microsoft Office and its word processor also has an outline mode.
And if you’re on the Mac (I love my Mac), the latest version of Pages, Pages ’09, comes with an outline mode as well.
To recap, when writing a long piece that needs to hang together (or it will surely hang separately), use an outlining tool. Show your outline at different depth levels to make sure that each level of logic is coherent and flows.
This is Stever Robbins. You can find this episode's transcript, and find a PDF of a collapsable and expandable mind map sample, and a Microsoft Word outline sample at getitdone.quickanddirtytips.com. If you have an iPhone, have the Get-it-Done Guy and other great shows from Quick and Dirty Tips streamed to your phone by Stitcher, free today at Stitcher.com
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!