DonnaM » Blog Archive » Writing for the print

Writing for the print

A funny thing happened to me a few months back that helped me learn something very important about how I write, and writing in general.

As you may know, I’m writing a book (on card sorting). Earlier this year I was up to the point where I had some chapters drafted and thought they were OK, but not great, and couldn’t figure out how to make them great.

So, as is the normal thing to do when writing a book, I sent the chapters to my editor. And as editors do, he read them and gave me feedback.

He pinpointed my problem easily. I had over-structured my writing. Well, I am an information architect, and structuring stuff is what I do. On advice on how to approach the writing process, I had written an outline with points on what to write, then filled in the gaps between the outline with content – explaining each of the points I had included in my outline. I used lots of headings to break up the writing so it wasn’t too dense, bullet points to make it readable etc etc.

What happened was interesting (to me). Because I had written outline points and then filled them in, I pretty much treated them as independent chunks of information. As a result there was a lot of overlap between the chunks, the writing was very choppy and there was not much flow between points.

My editor initially blamed it on powerpoint syndrome – the overuse of choppy structure and bullet points…but I knew better…

Do you know what I think it was? I think it was writing for the web. What do we teach in writing for the web – lots of headings and subheads, lots of bulleted lists, scannable writing, writing so people can read independent chunks and get what they need. That’s what I did – I applied how I had been writing for the web for years and made a miserable mess.

How did I fix it? I pulled out all the headings and bulleted lists and wrote it from top to bottom in prose. I made every paragraph link to the previous and following without using headings. Then, when it was working as an entire flow, I went back and added in headings, lists, pullquotes and other scannable items. But I added those that would enhance the flow, not make the structure.

It was a very, very interesting learning experience for me, and the book is so much the better for it.

6 Responses to “Writing for the print”

  1. Gordon Says:

    As a technical writer with IA leanings I can sympathise. One of the hardest balances I have with my work is leverage IA practises without overdoing them.

    Both professions can teach each other something though, and it’s odd to see you do the exact opposite of what I do. When planning content, I tend to start with an outline which is transferred into a set of headings which themselves should flow. Then the content is plugged in but written to always be relevant to it’s position.

    Hard, ain’t it!

    Good luck with the rest of the book, it’ll be on my shopping list, that’s for sure.

  2. Peter Says:

    I had the same happen to me. Over the years, I’ve started to think that the best way to write is not to make an outline first, but to teach first. Once you’ve taught a subject, you know how you want to explain it. Then have an approach to the structure of the book in your head, and then just write proze (and clean it up). Anyway, that’s the theory, I’ll try it with my next book :)

  3. Gene Says:

    That’s a great story. I’ll have to try that.

    I’ve made the most progress when I’ve thrown out my outline. After a couple of rocky chapters I realized that I wrote the outline to get a book contract, but the outline itself wasn’t a great book.

    The other thing I discovered was that I had to write the whole book, more or less, before I knew how it would turn out. Turning things in chapter by chapter has been basically impossible.

  4. Donna Maurer Says:

    Gordon – my headings looked like they flowed, but when I filled them in, they were more like disconnected points than a building story.

    Peter & Gene. My experience is similar to yours. An outline is necessary to get a book contract, but it’s not the best way to write it. I managed to write some chapters one by one as I have a chunk of procedural material (do this, then this). But apart from that, I didn’t know what was in the book until it had written itself. But that’s how I work – I don’t know what I think until I’ve said it or written it down.

  5. Damian (TOAST) O'Neil Says:

    Hey Donna,

    Thanks for the advice! Along with a few other folk I know, I’ve started to use mind-maps to structure the things I write. The dis-jointedness of it doesn’t seem to matter, as I’m writing specifications, scoping documents and manuals, and people just read the bits they want. (Or maybe it does… I will reflect at a later time).

    *HOWEVER*, I have ambitions to do more creative writing, and I’m glad I read your post!

    I write a few speeches and presentaions and I use the technique of topics/headings/subheadings, but I always make sure at some stage to “flatten” my structure, and then write the actual the actual “dialogue” in as a big block. I may keep the original structure as a set of notes for myself, but in order to deliver a “speech” or a presentaion, it needs to be one continual…. “thing”.

    That said though, from my own experience and others I’ve talked to, you can spend 80% of your time working on the “structure” of a speech, the actual words tend to be pretty easy to write. I was even taught to pause for 20 seconds and write three bullet points when asked to jump up and do 60 seconds of impromptu.

    Anyway, thanks again! I think you’ve saved me from a pitfall! Look in your local Dymocks for my global almanac of stews and casseroles (in the year 2011 or so).

  6. Donna Maurer Says:

    @Toast Yum – stews and casseroles…

    Oh, back on topic. That’s how I’ve been writing my talks lately as well – as one big story that I then illustrate.

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