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Putting the Pro Back in Professional Writing: 2 of 3


In the first post of this series, I talked about using outlines as a strategy to decrease the time it takes to actually write something. Before you get to that point, you have to know what you’re writing about, which takes us to…

Complaint #2: I Don’t Know How to Get Started

This is a fair statement. The idea is where it all starts, and if the idea doesn’t resonate with your audience, they won’t bother to read what you wrote. Coming up with a “good” idea, then, can be intimidating if you’re unsure where to begin.

Solution: Brainstorming & Clustering

The biggest mistake I see students – and professionals – make is jumping right into writing something without having thought about the topic. The outline will tell you where you’re going, but brainstorming will tell you where to start.

In its simplest form, brainstorming is jotting down words or short phrases on a piece of paper, or thinking to yourself about different ideas. There is no particular order or logical sequence to brainstorming, and nothing gets crossed off the list until you’ve exhausted all possible ideas. The idea is to jot down as many ideas as quickly as you can. Try giving yourself a time limit – no more than five or ten minutes at the most. And yes, I said jotting down words on paper.

If you’re having trouble getting started, it’s easier to stay focused and get creative ideas from physically writing them down – not typing. Not only will you not be tempted to start writing the whole piece, but there’s also something about putting pen to paper that sparks imagination more than staring at a computer screen. There is actual science to back this up, too: check out this article on the benefits of writing by hand, or this one on how handwriting improves cognitive ability.

After you agree to abandon your computer during the brainstorming phase, you must know to whom you’re writing. Answer these questions about your audience before you begin clustering:

  • What’s the age/gender/education/geography demographic?

  • Where do they work/what is their profession?

  • What are their interests?

  • What are their common beliefs?

You don’t have your topic just yet, so we will be adding to this list. For now, it’s best to keep your audience profile basic. Next, choose a few ideas from your brainstorming list that align with your audience profile. It’s time to cluster your best ideas to see which one you can fully develop.

Clustering: Also known as mind mapping, clustering works especially well for people who are visual learners. Here’s an example from Brian Wasko at the WriteAtHome blog:

Your main idea is in the middle. Your possible supporting points are clustered out from the main idea. Take a few of these supporting points, and add details to them. Use arrows to connect relevant points. The best points will have at least three coherent, logical details to support them. You should start to see that some supporting points will have no details, and some will have a few. Some details will be irrelevant or best used in a different way. Use your audience profile to determine where to concentrate your effort.

Return to your audience profile. Expand on it, now that you have a main idea and supporting points, with the following questions:

  • How much do they already know about my topic?

  • What’s their attitude toward my topic?

  • Will cultural beliefs or norms affect the way they interpret my topic?

  • What questions might they still have?

Rewrite your supporting points to the side of the cluster, and rearrange them according to logical sequence or least to most important. Eliminate the ones that don’t align with your audience profile. Use your answer to the last question above to add additional details to your supporting points.

In what should have only been about 20-30 minutes at the most, you thought through different topics and identified your audience and a working outline. You can think more clearly about the direction for your writing, and form a complete outline – see the previous post as a guide.

In total, the process of brainstorming, clustering, and outlining should take less than 45 minutes. Yes, you could have spent that time actually writing; but being organized and focused early on means avoiding writer’s block later.

Did I miss anything? What techniques help you get started when you’re writing about a new topic? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Next up: Complaint #3: I Hate Grammar and Punctuation. Stay tuned!

Reprinted from LinkedIn, original post 7/21/15

#professionalwriting #clustering #brainstorming

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