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December 7, 2008 / Ben

Type before you think

I’m losing the ability to write. Not the ability to type. Ho no. Just the ability to sit down with a blank sheet of paper, a pen and some ideas and write out a clean coherent argument. PowerPoint broke the other day so I used a piece of paper to draft up the bullet points the slides I was working on.  Three pieces of paper later I had arrows all over the place. I didn’t make any headway until the help desk had helped and PowerPoint was up and running again.

Writing logically is hard. When I started my MSc we had an afternoon’s lectures and exercises based on Minto’s Pyramid Principle. It’s a powerful way to communicate and it’s radically changed how I write and to some extent how I speak. What I took from that afternoon was to start with the punchline and then fill in the details. This is how good news reports should be written – though heaven knows all to often they aren’t. It is also how I was taught to write.

Ideally, someone reading the first sentence of every paragraph should have a summary right there in front of them. A mix between a precis and an acrostic, if you will. My history teacher taught me how to do that by making us put a five or six point essay plan at the top of each piece of homework. It takes a lot of effort though. You actually have to think before you write. Um. Make that sentence: “You actually have to think”.

The more logically we think, the harder it is to write simple and accessible prose because  we tend to start with cause and move on to effect. But this is not the best way to take the information in. For most people the best way to take an idea in is to start with the big picture and then fill in the details. Tabloid editors know this and they have mastered the art of grabbing our attention.

One interesting effect of putting the meat of every paragraph into its first sentence is that a lot of the “essential explanation” turns out to be padding and guff. Pushing the important bit to the front of every paragraph means that what you write can seem abrupt or rude. But boy is it lucid.

So writing simple clear prose is hard in the first place, but the software is seductively helpful. The Outline views in Word and in PowerPoint help you to do what my history teacher taught me; to structure your piece of writing first and then to put in the detail afterwards.

Outline View in MS Word

Outline View in MS Word

I was really rather rattled to discover just how hard I found it to do the same thing on a sheet of paper.

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5 Comments

  1. Z / Dec 7 2008 11:17 pm

    I detest dictation with avengance, given the change I’d do my own typing, but my secretary won’t let me, and I don’t really have time.

    But I find you really have to plan what you are saying in advance. It’s a struggle to dictate a two page letter, let alone a whole report or a book. I can’t believe people used to write via dictation.

  2. SonofRojBlake / Dec 11 2008 12:55 pm

    Giving dictation is a skill just as much as is typing. Then again, of course, if one had a GOOD secretary, one could simply dictate the important points, and trust the secretary to knock the corners off and wrap it in readable prose.

  3. benwarsop / Dec 30 2008 11:23 am

    I’ve had both roles there, and much preferred the boss who said “send a letter to so-and-so saying such-and-such” to the boss who needed three passes through the same letter – each one typed separately – before he’d sign the dratted thing.

    Personally I think everyone should be taught to touch-type at school.

    Cheers

    Ben

  4. SG V / Jan 1 2009 7:43 pm

    Oh yeah, one thing I regret never having learned is touch typing. Would save me so much time. I’m battling the urge to start right off in PowerPoint every time I do a – at least more important – presentation. I have a little Word file that I use – it prompts me for answers to the most important things such as who’ll be there, why am I speaking and what do I want them to retain. And then prints that along with two pages full of empty ‘cartoon spaces’ for me to sketch (yes, using a pencil!) my presentation flow into. Works rather well.

    But having to write up a long, coherent report? *shudders*

  5. Ben Warsop / Jan 2 2009 12:13 pm

    What an interesting approach Santra. My first thought there is that I know all of those things anyway, why do I need to stop and think about them. Which of course means that I really do need to stop and think about them.

    So much of what is wrong with presentations arises because of lazy use of the tool. If only the default setting was not those dreadful bullets…

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