Hey, fill in some blanks!

Word count: 748 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Many writers tell me they don’t have difficulty writing — they just don’t know WHAT to write about. Here’s a creative solution if that nitty-gritty problem bugs you….

I once had to interview a neuroscientist for an article I was writing. Fortunately for me, a math-disabled science-phobe, she was friendly and able to speak in plain English. And during our conversation she asked me an interesting question.

“If you have two people going somewhere in a car,” she asked, “who learns the road better? The passenger or the driver?”

Generally, I don’t like it when interview subjects try to pull a U-turn by asking me the questions. Luckily, I was able to guess the answer correctly — phew! Of course, it was the driver. That’s because while passengers are free to daydream while in the car, drivers must make decisions and therefore they become more engaged.

But this was no idle query on the neuroscientist’s part. She was giving me a metaphor — she wanted to make the point that just as drivers learn more than passengers, students learn more when they are fully engaged in hands-on activities rather than when they are just listening to lectures.

Now I have a question (and a metaphor) for you!

If you are writing an exam, which is the faster type of question to answer? A “fill-in-the-blank” question or a mini essay?

I hope you found this as simple to answer as I did: “fill-in-the-blank.”  It’s faster (and generally easier – assuming you know the answer, of course!) because the “correct” answer is usually straightforward. Most fill-in-the-blanks have only one – or possibly two – answers that are correct, whereas an essay requires you to make a great many more choices.

And how is this a metaphor? Well, when you’re writing, I suggest you try to turn your writing into a “fill-in-the-blank” exercise rather than a “write an essay” one. Let me use my own blog as an example:

When I started blogging last March, I knew I wanted to post five times per week, but I fretted that I wouldn’t have the time to manage the work involved. How could I possibly find the time to write five blog entries per week?

The answer? Scheduling! (AKA: filling in the blanks.)

Instead of committing to write “something” five times per week, I set myself the following schedule:

Mondays: I blog on what I call “writing about writing.” I find a book, or an article or a website that addresses issues related to writing. Yesterday, for example, I reviewed a terrific new book on verbs by Constance Hale. (You should take a look at this book.)

Tuesdays: I post my Power Writing column, including the one you’re reading here. (Hint: if you ever want to find an old column, I back-entered all copies until the beginning of 2009 as well as selected popular entries from 2008 and 2007.)

Wednesdays: I blog on an interesting word I’ve discovered in my reading. Often it’s a word I didn’t know before, such as machicolated but at other times it’s simply a word that I think is interesting such as gimcrack.

Thursdays: I blog on a piece of figurative language I’ve encountered recently. It may be a simile, a metaphor, a cliché made interesting by careful tweaking, or personification.

Fridays: I blog on what I call my sentence-of-the-week. This is something I pull from my own reading and, if it’s a book, I often provide a mini-review as well. I cover a range of genres recently including Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton, and Amor Towles’ novel The Rules of Civility.

While it’s true that my schedule requires me to do a lot of reading, I would read even if I weren’t writing a blog so it never feels like a burden. I can write most of my posts (excluding Power Writing) in about 20 minutes, which makes it a task I can fit into my schedule relatively easily.

So, how can you use this strategy? Well, let’s imagine you’re writing a weekly blog on, say, gardening. If you take the “essay” approach, you’ll have to think up a new topic each week. But if you take the “fill-in-the-blanks” system, you might produce the following schedule for yourself:

Week 1: a profile of a plant

Week 2: a lesson you’ve learned from your own garden

Week 3: a review of another gardening website or blog

Week 4: how to deal with a common garden problem

Week 5 (when required): an interview with a master gardener

Just cycle through these topics, once a month, filling in the blank, and I bet your readers won’t even notice you’re doing this!

Have you ever tried scheduling your topics in this fashion? If not, is this something you might consider doing in future? Please comment below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

Last week’s column on shame generated a big response on my blog. Thanks again to my client who suggested it. And let me pass along a link to a couple of videos she has recommended.

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