brainstormEvery term as I start teaching new writing classes, this topic is always on my list, regardless of how much else I have to teach, regardless of the eye rolls that I see from some students.

I can imagine what they’re thinking, and confirm it through a show of hands: they’ve done this before.

Also, they’re so impatient to get on with the business of writing that sometimes they don’t see the point. Okay, I have an idea (they say), what’s the need to write around it? Just get going.

But as I suggest to them and believe myself, brainstorming can only help to deepen your ideas, and help to focus a concept, come up with a better angle, or even a better idea.

Here are the techniques we use in class:

Freewriting: write stream of consciousness style in sentences for five minutes about your topic. The challenge here is not to censor yourself, but let the ideas flow. See how different your final thoughts are from your first.

Brainstorming: the most traditional, I think, and my personal favourite. Write down ideas, fragments, anything that comes to mind. Again, avoid censoring until the end.

Clustering: a variation on brainstorming, this involves going deeper on particular ideas, putting the major ideas on the page and then for each additional idea that pops up doing a mini-brainstorm around that. So, if you brainstormed the concept of writing, you might think of editing, copywriting, and technical writing, and then cluster those additional topics.

Writing book: Zinsser’s On Writing Well

Zinsser's On Writing WellNot exactly breaking news, but William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is one of those books that many writers agree it’s a good idea to try to reread yearly. If you don’t have time at the moment I came across a great address printed at American Scholar (via of course) where he talks about some of his standard advice. Cheating I know but here’s the bit where he starts to reiterate his top rules for writing:

First, Clarity. If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.

Two: Simplicity. Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking. “Oh, Mr. Zinsser, you’re so funny,” a bright young woman from Nigeria told me. “If I wrote sentences like that, people would think I’m stupid.” Stupid like Thoreau, I want to say. Or stupid like E. B. White. Or like the King James Bible. Listen to this passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all. [Look at all those wonderful plain nouns: race, battle, bread, riches, favor, time, chance.]

Okay, like any good freelancer I should link you directly to the source, here’s where to go to keep reading:

Working at Writing

Occasionally I like to post about the business of freelancing and working with clients. Here I’m going to share how I start out with new projects.

As a freelancer, I start new projects all the time and it always starts with questions. On my end, I like to begin with gathering lots of information a new client:

  • What kind of writing are you looking for?
  • What is the scope of the project?
  • What is your deadline?
  • How many revisions would you like to see?
  • How do you like to communicate about the project?
  • Is there a style or tone that you’re looking to capture?
  • What do you want the project to accomplish?
  • What audience will be reading it?

I like it when a new client asks me questions too, whether it be how and what I charge (usually by the project), how I like to work (lots of communication), what kinds of writing I’ve done in the past (I usually direct them to my portfolio) and whether I have any creative suggestions for their project (I really like that one).

Asking lots of questions helps us to get on the same page and minimizes surprises along the way.

My reference shelf

Canadian Press StylebookIt’s back to school time! Students sometimes ask me what books I keep as standard on my reference shelf. In no particular order:

  • Canadian Oxford Dictionary
  • The Canadian Press Style Book
  • Caps and Spelling
  • MLA Handbook
  • The Globe and Mail Style Book
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage
  • The Copyeditors’ Handbook
  • Quotation Dictionary
  • French/English Dictionary
  • Checkmate (grammar book I used in teaching; handy for reminders)
  • Thesaurus (notably did not get upgraded but do use a lot of shift-F7)

Craft: White papers

Everyone who doesn’t write them always asks what I’m writing when I’m writing a white paper. I’ve written a few of them over the years. They also ask about some of the other corporate forms I’ve worked on. I thought I’d explain a few.

The “white paper” is a form that takes a concept or a technical subject (I’ve written mostly about technology) and presents it basically as an essay that summarizes the product’s features and how it can be used to solve the problem that the end user is trying to address. A great guy who makes his full living doing them (and just wrote the Dummies book) is

Related technical products include the “case study”, which looks at a particular example of an organization successfully using the product or technology (usually in a shorter format than a white paper). At the shorter end of the spectrum, a “sell sheet” summarizes very briefly (usually in a page) the specifics of a technology or concept.

Now you know!