Clear Thinking, Clear Writing

Often, when I’m coaching writers (yes, I offer that as a professional service, ask me about coaching), I have to battle the “trapped at the keyboard” mindset – that is, the idea that the act of writing involves only what happens while you’re typing. In fact, clear thinking is the most important (and most often overlooked) aspect of good writing.

Clear thoughts crystallize in “Aha!” moments. An “Aha!” moment occurs when you realize that you have grasped a key concept, event, or relationship in such a way that you know exactly what you must communicate, or at least how to start.

Often, this won’t happen when you’re sitting there, stubbornly willing yourself to write. In fact, staring at the computer screen is exactly how many potentially good writers end up wasting a lot of time and energy, while undermining their efforts with frustration and despair!

All writing, even business or academic writing, is a creative process. It pays to discover your own creative style and nuances. Here’s how you can learn which circumstances or activities yield the most “Aha! moments” for you…

WHAT CAUSES YOUR “AHA!” MOMENTS?

Try this:

  1. Find your best bits of writing: Consider your current writing project, or one you’ve worked on recently. Which parts of that writing “work” best? That is, what sentences, phrases, headings, or paragraphs get your point across most effectively and engagingly?

  2. Where and when did you get those great ideas? For each great bit of writing, think back: Exactly when or where did you first think to present that particular bit of information in that way? Be honest, and note everything you can recall about the circumstances. What were you doing, how were you feeling, what kind of environment were you in, and what had you been doing in the hours and minutes prior to that idea springing forth?

  3. Look for patterns: This might be easy. If the truth is that most of your best ideas spring from your subconscious while you zone out on the subway during your daily commute, honor that. If you never do any decent writing before noon, that’s very important information.

  4. If an obvious pattern is hard to spot: Consider your physical, mental, or emotional state at the time of your “Aha!” moment. Had you recently exercised, eaten, or slept? Did you get an ego boost earlier that day? Did you work on crossword puzzles over your morning coffee? Did you have a really great conversation, or read a thought-provoking weblog entry? Also consider whether distracting, irritating, or unnerving factors were mercifully absent: Was traffic not so bad that morning? Was your boss out sick?

MAKE MORE “AHA!” MOMENTS HAPPEN

Do what works for you, on a regular basis.

If you find you get the most “Aha!” moments while sitting quietly at a conference, listening intently to the Q&A sessions at the end of panel discussions, then make an effort to attend a conference (or at least a brown-bag lunch) just before you start writing.

If the buzzing computers and ringing phones gnaw away at your ability to concentrate, consider doing your initial writing in a quiet place, maybe brainstorming with a paper notebook, just scribbling down key phrases, outlining concepts. Or maybe just don earplugs or headphones to get started.

If you need to talk things over with colleagues or friends, let them know that that this is a productive part of your writing process. Find ways to make more time for discussion that works well for all concerned.

If you need to play tennis or go for a walk, dance the tango or climb a tree, do it. Just make sure that whatever you’re doing to enhance your creativity doesn’t just end up becoming a procrastination tactic.

TAKE NOTES!

All those “Aha!” moments will do your writing no good whatsoever if you don’t capture them. The trick is to capture those thoughts without interrupting the creative process.

Most writers I know find memory alone to be highly unreliable. Choose a good tool that you’re comfortable with – a notepad and pen, whiteboard, transcript from an online chat discussion, or (my tool of choice) a digital voice recorder.

The point is not to create a verbatim account, but rather to capture the cool stuff. When something you need to say becomes clear to you, it’s exciting. So if you find yourself getting a bit excited, that’s good! Chances are that whatever excites you will later grab your audience’s attention, too.

This kind of note-taking is all about emphasizing clarity, so be emphatic in your notes. Use exclamation points, circle or underline things. For instance, when I talk into my voice recorder, I say, “Yeah! Yeah!” a lot, and my voice takes on a very animated tone. People in the grocery store find this quite amusing.

BRING IT BACK TO YOUR WRITING

Once you have noted even just a few “Aha!” moments, start from those. It doesn’t matter if they’re points you’ll make at the beginning, middle, or end of your document. Just get the words flowing. It’s OK to jump around, to ignore your outline, whatever you want. Just get that energy flowing.

My only caution is to keep an eye on scope and length. Don’t fritter away your writing energy by flying off into interesting tangents that you know won’t make it into your final document. (But do note those tangents, they may be fodder for future writing.) Don’t write 5,000 words if you know your audience will only spend a minute or two with your document. Get to the point, and stick to the point.

…So, if you’re feeling stymied or frustrated or bored with your writing, chances are the real problems began long before you sat down at your computer. Look at the big picture, and consider what really makes your mind focus and produce those gems. You may be surprised.

5 thoughts on Clear Thinking, Clear Writing

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  1. I liked your suggestions…and discovered, as I’m mainly a teacher and teacher trainer, not strictly a writer, that my best Aha moments are those in which I get the ‘big picture’ of my work in progress with other people learning, sharing ideas and ‘constructing’.

    Silvana

  2. 29 October 2003

    I enjoyed your article on “aha” moments. I’ve found it’s vital to get these precious thoughts down when they come to you, or they’ll be gone as surely as a puff of smoke.

    I have a method that some of your readers might like to try. A lot of these thoughts come to me while I’m in bed, getting ready to go to sleep. I keep a tape recorder next to my bed on a stand. It has a corded microphone attached to it with an off-on button. The recorder is always set to record; in other words, all I have to do is click the microphone button to on and it’s recording. When I have an idea or thought I don’t want to lose, I record it right then. It’s easy to do in the dark. And it’s there the next morning when you need it.

    Mac Stevenson
    E-mail: macsteve@kans.com

  3. Most of my Aha! moments happend while I’m in my morning bath :-S…

    I absolutely agree with you on this article. I am currently more on the mode ‘Am I stuck, am I not’. This is a harder problem…

    Also: it is impressive how time pressure can give you (some) “Aha!”. But not allways…

    Regards,
    JB

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