November 13, 2014
I earn my living doing something that many people regard as sheer torture: knitting words into sentences and paragraphs. Unfortunately for those people, nearly every job or business endeavor demands a certain amount of that torture. However, there’s a simple trick that can make your writing easier and more effective.
That trick is starting somewhere in the middle.
I hear it all the time from people who have to write reports, promotional e-mails, performance reviews, white papers, blog posts, or any of the other kinds of content that play critical roles in the business world. “I just don’t know how to begin” is a common plaint. “I hate staring at that empty screen and that #%#^$% blinking cursor” lament others. “I know exactly what I want to say, but I can’t get started” some moan.
Written materials do tend to be arranged in a linear fashion. There’s a beginning, middle, and an ending. In school, most of us were taught to write in just that order. Remember learning about outlines and paragraph structure? Open your paragraph with a compelling sentence, use the next two or three sentences to provide support, and then conclude with some kind of summary?
That kind of structure is an excellent objective, but there are no rules demanding that you develop it in that order — except for the self-imposed rules in your head (and those your seventh-grade English teacher cemented there). When you have to write something, you should do it in the way that makes you most comfortable.
When I recommend that you start writing the middle, what I’m suggesting is that you begin with the main point (or points) that you want to convey. You don’t have to make them fancy or even grammatical — all you need to do to get started is get them on screen (or on paper, for the traditionalists out there).
Back in the days when we wrote on typewriters, starting in the middle was very difficult. But the advent of word processing software makes it very easy. Suppose you’re writing an article about income taxes, and you want your reader to come away with the importance of planning, keeping good records, and filing tax forms in a timely fashion. You then enter these three sentences, with plenty of blank space between them: “Planning is a critical component of any tax strategy,” “Keeping and organizing the right records will save time and trouble,” and “Create a calendar that lists upcoming deadlines.”
You may think that all you did was list the key points, but you’ve actually started writing your article. Now go to each of those sentences and jot down rough statements that either add detail or explain why they’re important. Again, you don’t have to be fancy or grammatical. Right now, you’re just trying to organize your thoughts. For the “records” sentence, those thoughts might include “Look at last year’s taxes to see which categories you’ll need,” “Set up a basic filing system to organize receipts and documents,” and “Check what you’ve gathered to identify any gaps.”
Once you get all those thoughts into place, you’re ready to combine them into sentences and paragraphs. You’ll be surprised at how easy it becomes to turn those assorted thoughts into a cohesive paragraph, and how the transitions and other surrounding words will begin to flow. It isn’t magic; it’s just a matter of freeing yourself from writing in that linear fashion. Instead, you’re doing exactly what your brain does naturally: capturing and rearranging random bits of information.
When the middle of your article is finished (or well on its way), you’ll find that it’s much easier to craft a compelling introduction and a logical conclusion. And then, when you’ve completed your first draft of all those pieces, read through them to smooth out any jagged edges or rough spots. Don’t skimp at this stage. Most professional writers spend just as much time editing and rewriting their work as they put into developing a first draft.
The example I used here was for an article, but the same technique will work as well in a proposal, an e-mail, a report, a blog post, or any kind of written communication. The key is freeing your mind from limits and letting your thoughts and knowledge find their way to the screen or paper. Once you practice this technique, you’ll find that