Friday, July 24, 2009

Clarity and getting unstuck

“Getting stuck” is something that every writer has experienced. Most of us, even full-time professional writers, get stuck frequently.

Getting stuck is not identical with “writer’s block.” Getting stuck is typically a relatively minor problem of short duration. Typically it occurs after the writer has begun a writing project. Writer’s block is often a relatively major problem of long duration. It often has psychological causes. Typically it occurs before the writer has begun a writing project.

There are many procedures for getting unstuck. I’ve seen and tried a lot of them – even “invented” one or two.

But I can’t take credit for what I consider the best procedure. It appeared in “Good Writing,” a 2,400-word essay written by Marc H. Raibert in 1985. Don’t be put off by the age of this essay – these kinds of procedures don’t go obsolete.

[Beginning of quotation from Mr. Raibert’s essay]

How to Get Unstuck

There usually comes a point in writing a paper when you get stuck. You try generating several descriptions or statements, but nothing you write seems to work. When this occurs, it is likely that you don’t have a clear idea what you want to say, or you don’t fully understand some of the things you planned to explain. This is normal – it takes more understanding to explain clearly what you did, than it took to do it.

When you are stuck, try listing the points you want to make. Then return to writing sentences and paragraphs, and to revising. An outline can be very useful when you’re stuck, especially when you have already begun to write text. You may find that you can write good paragraphs that clearly express parts of your story, but you still have trouble with the overall organization of your paper. For instance, after generating several pages of text you read them to find that they ramble and repeat, and that parts of your story are missing. You can’t figure out what you’re trying to say. At this point you should make a new outline and reorganize using the following procedure:

1. Write down the topic of each paragraph you have written, in one or two words each.
2. Shuffle the topics into a coherent outline, adding topics as necessary.
3. Rearrange the paragraphs of text to follow the organization of the outline.
4. Revise the shuffled document, and add text for the added topics.

This procedure will often help you figure out what you’ve done, what’s missing, and to get back on the right track. Occasionally, you may even try this on a sentence by sentence basis.

[End of quotation]

You can now see why I included this passage in a blog about clarity. As Mr. Raibert points out, getting stuck is usually a matter of insufficient clarity.

By the way, his essay is a wonderful source of advice for anyone who wants to become a technical writer or a writer of research reports.

The Takeaway: If you “get stuck” while you are in the middle of a writing project, you probably need more clarity. Follow the advice in the quotation above.

1 comment:

  1. thank you! : ) unstuck now - I will be coming back here though... i have bookmarked this place