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.
- The tabloids and the headlines that say it all
- Greatest Tabloid Headlines
- Loads of pun – best tabloid headlines to make you smile
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.
I was really rather rattled to discover just how hard I found it to do the same thing on a sheet of paper.