Writing Isn’t a Puzzle

(This articles was originally published on Quora)

Reading my title, you may have jumped to the conclusion I’m going to share the secrets to crafting engaging, beautifully constructed prose. The puzzle of great writing solved!

Alas, my title is a double entendre. The challenge of writing isn’t like a puzzle, where the pieces neatly fit together, in a specific manner, forming the desired article, essay, novel, promotion, user manual, poem or myriad of other written pieces. Instead, there is an unimaginable number of ways of gathering words into sentences, polishing with punctuation, and then sculpting into paragraphs and chapters.

People, in my opinion, don’t have writer’s block because they can think of what to write. They struggle to narrow the innumerable options to a handful of approaches. Having written marketing communications for over thirty years, I’ve faced a blank piece of paper (or more telling, blank screen) many times, pondering how to begin, and realizing the looming deadline, like the flashing lights on a police car, was fast approaching.

Initial Puzzle Pieces

The technique I use to breakthrough writer’s block and push through an assignment, I fondly call “marination.” I usually begin by telling myself “Don’t worry about perfection, just start writing.” Unfortunately, I often fixation on the opening, rationalizing readers won’t be interested unless they’re initially hooked.

Knowing I’ll be “marinating” and then rewriting, I jumpstart my opening by choose from several options:

Quote: Find a quote from a famous or influential person that pertains to the topic. I typed “day dream quotes” into Google. It delivered 2,030,000 results, from which I selected a quote by comedian Steven Wright, “I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.”

Analogy: My favorite way to start anything, including a technical paper, is to start with an analogy. Consider the start of this article where I compared writing to a puzzle. I could have also started with something like “Great writing, like a pleasant day dream, flows off the paper into the mind of the reader, transporting them to another place and time.”

Historical or Statistical: Readers like historical information or statistics so why not start with an esoteric, but catchy fact, such as, “according to the website WiseGEEK, people spend 47% of their waking hours daydreaming.”

Create the Border

Once you have your opening, you’re ready to begin. Start by presenting the most relevant, following by the less pertinent information. To help organize your thoughts, write several subheads or sections, and inserting thoughts as they occur to you.

When I begin, I might have 4 to 5 subheads with hastily written thoughts below each one. I then tackle writing the content under the subheads, often jumping from one section to another. In this vein, I write small sections, rather than dealing with the entire subject matter.

(Gratuitous day dream picture... take on Orcas Island)

There’s nothing wrong with writing the easiest content first, and then returning to tougher sections. For instance, I sometimes write my closure early in the process because I know the final impressions I want to leave with readers.

It also helps to stand-up, turn-around, and pretend you’re the reader. What do they want to hear? What’s the most important information, action or emotion you want them to take away from what you’ve written?

As you write, try not to get sidetracked on grammar, choice of words or structure. Your first draft is simply to put down your initial thoughts… or the border of the puzzle.

Spend as much time as you feel necessary to create a first draft, then put your piece aside to “marinate.”

Ponder the Puzzle

Depending on your timeline, allow your piece to “marinate” a day or two. Resist the temptation to look at it. Instead, think about what you wrote. Did you leave something out? Did you add too much information? Can you order the section to better engage and maintain readers’ interest? Did you take the right approach, based on your objectives?

When you’re ready, revisit your document. Most likely, you’ll have clarity as to what needs to be rewritten and restructured. In addition, you’ll see how sentences and sections can be tighten, and passive sentences made active.

I’m afraid to admit how many times I was convince I wrote an absolutely brilliant passages, only to return a few days later – after letting my piece marinate — and gasped with horror. The piece was clunky, the analogies silly, and structure alarming.

Don’t fixate on the issues you might see in your work. Take a deep breath, and start editing, adding and removing content, enhancing weak sections, and correcting structure issues. If you’re not on deadline, take another day or two to let your work marinate again.

You might need to “marinate” and revise your work several times. Typically, I do 3 to 6 revisions.

Complete the Puzzle

When you put together a jigsaw puzzle, it’s often difficult to see how the pieces fit together, especially if you’ve been twisting and turning them, contemplating how the small pieces resemble the picture on the puzzle box. However, if you step away and come back an hour or so later, it become more apparent where the pieces fit into the puzzle.

I’ve found the same is true with writing. If set your work aside to marinate, it becomes easier to pinpoint how to make it better, supplementing or tightening sections, using more descriptive language, reorganizing, and most importantly, catching typos and grammatical errors.


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