Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 20

Some Practical Ways to Get Started

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In this Lesson:

This lesson is about the mechanics of getting your words down on paper and avoiding some of the sidetracks and pitfalls that can get you bogged down in the details.


HOW TO AVOID HABITS THAT TRIGGER WRITING BLOCKS

Everyone has experienced sitting down to write and drawing a complete mental blank. You feel stuck, uninspired and ripe for distraction. Once you've had that experience a couple of times, you condition yourself to have that same response each time you put yourself in that same physical situation. Perhaps it's sitting down at a typewriter, at a particular desk, or in a particular room.

Do you often experience complete writing blocks? If so, mentally (and physically, if you can) put yourself in that place and write down here everything you can think of that describes the sights, sounds and feelings you experience in that situation:

The easiest way to avoid that kind of block is to change something about the environment in which the block occurs. If sitting in a particular chair does it, change chairs -- or stand up. Or go for a walk. If some kind of lighting or some sounds do it, change them. If writing with a pencil does it, type or dictate on tape. Be creative in coming up with new writing environments that don't trigger the blocking experience. Often it's just a matter of putting distractions out of reach.

Another strategy for getting around blocks is to find or recreate environments where you have done your most inspired and productive work. Not just the physical environment but your whole frame of mind. How can you apply those resources to the task at hand? Form a picture of your finished product and describe to yourself in detail how it will look, what people might say as they respond to it, and how you will feel when you finish it. What do you need to do now to produce the product that will get those responses?

Sometimes you might feel blocked just because you can't think of what to do next. Don't worry if you sit down to write and have no specific plan and don't know where to begin. Begin anywhere and sort it out later. The specific procedures I've covered already (such as the many checklists I've given you) will help you out there.


YOUR FRIEND, THE TAPE RECORDER

This may sound silly, but when you have trouble writing, try talking. Almost everyone finds talking easier than writing, especially if they're talking to someone they feel comfortable with. Find such a friend and sit down together and talk about your writing assignment and what you want to say. Describe the person you're writing to, what you're trying to accomplish, and how you want your reader to respond. Have your friend play your reader, if he is willing, so you can talk directly to your audience.

So you can remember what you said, tape record your conversation. Keep the recorder and microphone out of sight, if you can, so they don't distract you. When you play the conversation back, you should find that you've expressed many of your ideas in a clear, conversational way. Write them down verbatim.

What you've just discovered is: if you can say it, you can write it. You should find that not only do your spoken ideas, when transcribed, form the nucleus of your written piece, but also that the conversational style you use when you talk is usually the most natural way to express an idea -- and it's a skill you already have!

Eventually, you should be able to talk to your tape recorder, even when your friends aren't available. If you have a small, portable recorder, you might find it stimulating to go for a walk and record ideas as they occur to you. If you have a difficult subject to explain, imagine you're explaining it to your mother or to an interested 12-year-old.


HOW TO GET IDEAS DOWN ON PAPER

Many people get hung-up about writing because they think that when they write something down it has to be right the first time. It doesn't. You can write down any thought as it occurs to you, using any words that will help you remember it. Clean it up and sort it out later.

Because some of your best ideas can come to you in unlikely places, it's a good idea to always have some way to record them. If you don't like to carry a tape recorder around with you, carry a little note pad or some blank 3 x 5 cards. Keep some paper at bedside, too.


A WORD ABOUT WORD PROCESSORS

Computerized word processing caught on around the time the IBM PC was introduced in 1982. It ushered in the age of electronic communication for the masses that most of us take for granted today. If you write with a word processor, you already know how sophisticated these programs have become and how convenient (or complicated, depending on your point of view) they make our writing tasks. Convenience, however, is only one of the advantages of writing with a computer. I want to focus here on how completely they have changed the way we think about the writing process itself.

The mechanics of getting our thoughts "down on paper" has always constrained our writing skills. The flexibility of word processing gives the writer new freedoms to explore, for example:

  • Unconstrained by linear thinking, you can begin anywhere.
  • You can jot rough ideas down quickly, as they occur to you, and polish or amplify them later.
  • You can transcribe your thoughts and ideas almost as quickly as you can think.
  • You can revise easily by moving and copying sentences, paragraphs, and sections.
  • You can easily experiment with layout and typographical options, like bold, italics, font face and size.
  • You don't have to worry about gaps. Fill them in later.
  • It's easy to tinker with and fine tune wording.
  • You can worry less about spelling and punctuation and concentrate on ideas.
  • You can easily write down all the details, then throw away the nonessential ones later.
  • It's easy to incorporate reviewers' changes .

As you get comfortable with the mechanics of writing with a word processor, practice and cultivate these new skills as well.


CARD TRICKS -- A POOR MAN'S WORD PROCESSOR

Here's a trick I learned about 30 years ago (before word processors) that greatly simplifies the mechanics of producing a first draft, from a letter to a book-length manuscript like a dissertation or a journal paper. If you're computer-phobic, or simply can't afford a word processor, this scheme might work for you.

By now you should realize that clear, informative writing really means a lot of rewriting. If you're really paying attention to your writing, you'll rewrite many sentences, particularly the important ones, four or five times, as you play them back internally for different readers. You'll also be constantly adding, deleting, and shuffling sentences within paragraphs and doing the same thing with whole paragraphs and sections, too.

Everyone has experienced the problems with this method. After you write a few pages, then begin to cross out, add and move things around, your pages begin to look more like a football team's blackboard. Pretty soon, more changes become physically impossible without rewriting the whole page. Then you find yourself spending a lot of time just copying unchanged parts of the text, just to incorporate your changes.

After reaching this point several times myself, I developed a modular approach to writing manuscripts that is much better adapted to changes. Each module is one 3 x 5-inch lined index card. Write one sentence on each card in pencil. Make minor changes by erasing, but larger changes by rewriting the card. A paragraph mark (¶) at the top of a card tells the typist to begin a paragraph with that sentence.

Sections and subsections can be color coded with marking pens along the top edges of the appropriate cards, or you can use tab cards with section titles on them. Other instructions to the typist can be written in red pencil. To save cards, use insert marks (^) to add phrases, which you can write at the top or bottom of the card.

Shuffling sentences, even paragraphs and sections, suddenly becomes very easy, and you will become aware that other sentence orders may make more sense than the one you started out with. You can, of course, write your sentences and sections in any order, as a thought occurs to you, and assemble them later.

Some people who have tried this scheme catch on quickly and find that it greatly simplifies their writing tasks. Others hate it. They complain that they have trouble maintaining the same mental picture of continuity that they can with a page full of text. If this is a problem for you, you can lay out your written cards in a column on your desk. The visual image then differs only slightly from a handwritten page.

If someone else types for you from the cards, you can make minor changes as usual on the typescript. Make major changes (rewriting a long paragraph, for example) by attaching a small card deck to the typescript at the point of change, or by making a notation such as "Insert deck A". Also, you might want to number the cards as insurance against dropping the deck.

You can use standard file-card boxes to store your cards and often recall old modules into new service, as new documents require some "boilerplate" text you have written before.


SORTING IT INTO LOGICAL SECTIONS

Whether you've collected a lot of cards or notes or typed all your facts into a word processor, you're probably now faced with a hodge-podge of information that doesn't really hang together. So now you want to get them organized into some coherent structure. That structure is called an outline. In Lesson 6, you learned how to create an analytical outline for your paper. If you've followed that procedure, you can sort your modules into bins that correspond to your major outline sections. Any details that don't clearly fit into that structure probably belong in an appendix, and maybe they will ultimately be left out. When you finish this sorting, it will be easier to see any major sections that need to be fleshed out.

Within each major section, you have to create logical subsections. Follow the procedures you learned in Lesson 17, to decide what kind of logical sequence is best for your particular subject. Write informative subsection titles and sort your modules to fit those subsections.


LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

You can avoid writing blocks by changing your writing environment and by recreating circumstances where you have done your most creative work. If you have trouble putting your thoughts directly to paper, try talking to a friend and tape recording your conversation. Then transcribe your conversation.

Writing on 3 x 5 cards or with a word processor allows you the freedom and flexibility to interact with your writing, neatly add and subtract pieces, and to try different logical structures without doing permanent damage.

Next, I'll show you how to edit your writing, which means cleaning up your product and engineering it for your specific audience.


"The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." - Mark Twain


-- End of Lesson 20 --

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