Word count: 750 words
Reading time: About 3 minutes
Early in my newspaper career, when I worked at a neighbourhood weekly, my heart suffered a vicious little stab whenever I received a story from a truly inexperienced writer.
That’s because, if it was a news story, it inevitably began something like this: “There was a meeting held at the Dunbar Community Centre last week.” Or, if it was a feature, it might start, “Traffic lights. They’ve been around since 1868.”
While both beginnings are unspeakably dull they also reveal another even more damning flaw. They fail to have an angle.
I grew up in the newspaper business (my parents owned that struggling neighbourhood weekly) so I practically ate angles for breakfast. But if the term is new to you, make a point of understanding it now. You can’t write an interesting story without an angle. Worse, you can’t even prepare a mindmap without one. And that’s the point (or angle) of my column today.
Last week, I gave you my impassioned plea for mindmapping. I admitted there are a number of people who think mindmapping doesn’t work for them and I called these people the “uncomfortables.” And I further supposed the reason they don’t like mindmapping is because they’re doing something wrong.
What’s your error? My hunch is you’re simply writing your topic in the middle of the page. This will send you in entirely the wrong direction!
Writing should never be about topics. That’s way too boring and unfocused — not just for your readers but also for you, the writer. (Think about it — if you’re going to write an interesting piece you, too, should be interested!) Writing needs to make a point. And to figure out that point you must spend some time thinking — before you write a word, before, even, you mindmap.
The title of my book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, suggests the number of steps required for the writing process. One of those steps is thinking – preferably away from your computer. This shouldn’t be counterintuitive but, of course, it is. Writing isn’t just watching your fingers fly across the keyboard. It’s also giving some deep thought to what you’re going to say.
Kids in high school forget to do this all the time. Let’s say they’ve been asked to write an essay about Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. Many will simply take that topic and write about it at face value, describing the plot and perhaps giving a brief bio of the playwright.
But imagine they’d done some research after reading the play. And imagine further that they’d taken a bit more time to think things through. (I realize this strains credulity in terms of many high school students.) Then, their angle might have been any of the following:
• The play’s lack of realism helps the author make his point more powerfully OR
• Abandonment is the play’s key theme OR
• Chekhov had a profound influence on Tennessee Williams
Do you see how writing any of those three points in the centre of a mindmap would produce a far richer result than simply writing down the name of the play?
Similarly, let’s imagine you’re a corporate writer who’s been asked to produce an article on safety. Being a smart operator, you don’t write “safety” in the middle of your mindmap. Instead, you go for a walk and think about the variety of ways in which your employees are affected by safety. After 10 minutes or so, you determine you could tackle a story in any of the following three ways:
• How better safety improves my company’s bottom line OR
• 10 tips for being a safer driver OR
• Why back injuries are my company’s single biggest safety challenge
Then, choose which of those three angles you like best and write the words in the centre of your mindmap. Alternatively, do three mindmaps — one for each — and see which one generates the best ideas.
Of course, you could also do a mindmap to try to figure out your angle (and then another mindmap when you’ve accomplished that) but I think it’s generally better to start with a walk instead.
Having an angle — a point – is the key to producing a piece of writing that makes your job easier and engages your readers more fully.
Photo courtesy Huzzah16, Flickr Creative Commons
Posted January 31st, 2012 in Power Writing