I Write Therefore I Think

by Barbara Ross
Headed back to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, soon

We’ve all heard discussions about plotters versus pantsers. Plotters outline, pantsers (now more politically correctly called organic writers) wing it.

I’m a plotter trapped in a pantser’s brain. I’d love to be organized and know what will happen in advance, because it would cut down on both the anxiety and the rewriting. I’m just incapable of doing it.

It’s made me feel better to know that masters of plot like Stephen King eschew outlining and Agatha Christie’s wonderful notebooks contain just the barest lists of plot elements and what-ifs. But I still long to be a plotter.

It occurred to me the other day that my becoming a plotter is unlikely because writing is my primary and best mode of processing anything. So why should I be surprised that I have to actually write to figure out what happens?

When I was in my twenties I answered a classified ad in The Boston Globe from a company called Information Mapping that said, “Want to write? Part-time.” The six of us who were hired as a result of that ad used to joke that we were hired in company founder Bob Horn‘s bedroom, but in fact we were hired in the study off his bedroom. We were assured the job would never be full-time and that we would never get health insurance or benefits.

I ended up staying a dozen years, becoming an employee, and then a manager, and then an executive and learning to think, and act, and make decisions in a way that set the course for my entire life.

Information Mapping is a research-based methodology for analyzing, organizing and presenting complex information that is used in all types of business and technical writing.

When you use it, you start writing with two fundamental questions: “What do I want my reader to be able to do?” and therefore, “What does my reader need to know in order to do it?”

In business and technical writing, once you’ve made a list that answers those questions, you decide how your reader needs the information to be presented. There were seven information types in my day–procedure, process, concept, fact, principle, structure, classification. (I think there are six now.) Then there were optimal ways to present each type of information.

Infomap - example 1

You can see how this approach would appeal to someone who in college had studied the deep structures of novels in the English department and the deep structure of language in the psychology department. I did at least two massive rewrites of the reference book that people who took Information Mapping’s courses used, so I got pretty good at the methodology.

But what influenced me the most was the company’s much less frequently taught approach to writing business memos and communications. You’d start with the same questions, “What action do I want my readers to take/What decision do I want them to make?” and then “What do they need to know in order to take that action/participate in that decision?”

Then you had all sorts of chunks of information that you’d pick from and use to write. “Decision to be made” “Alternatives” “Recommendation” “Rationale” “Possible consequences” “Implementation steps” and so on.

What I discovered was, no matter how knotty the business problem, if I sat down and wrote my way through the process, I not only clearly knew what I thought at the end, I was also in a position to persuade others. As time marched on, often the drafted memo itself was consigned to the trash heap, its contents presented as PowerPoint bullets, e-mail, or discussion documents. But once I’d written the draft memo, I knew what I thought and I was confident I’d thought it through.

This ability, plus the love of working in start-up companies I discovered at Information Mapping, set the stage for my entire career.

So I shouldn’t be surprised I have to write the %#&* book  in order to know what’s in the %#&* book. It’s the way I’ve always worked.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I could approach a novel by asking, “What do I want my readers to feel?” and “What do they need to know (or suspect, or fear) in order to feel it?”

How about you? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you have to write in order to think?

17 Thoughts

  1. As a once and still technical writer, I understand exactly what you’re talking about, Barb. And I love your penultimate paragraph! I just finished a synopsis for Local Foods mystery book three, and it was tough. It was the first time I plotted out an entire book ahead of time. I didn’t like the process much – I much prefer to let it unroll ahead of me into the headlights – but my editor requires it. And now I have a roadmap as I head into writing the actual book. I might choose to take a detour or two, but I can fall back on that plan if I want to. And I’ll be thinking about “What do I want my reader to feel?”!

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  2. Barb, I love how you demystified what I often wondered was wrong with me! I’m the same way – want to outline but it never works. The required synopsis is helpful, but the actual book still changes as it goes along. It’s also interesting to see how the business world practices influence fiction. I was part of a program a couple of years ago on the communication team in my corporate life and one thing we focused heavily on was the Do-Know-Believe-Feel goals when working with our senior leaders to craft communications. It totally changed the way they thought about what they were doing and saying, and I find myself often asking those questions in my other work.

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  3. I am a plotter. There are changes that happen while I am writing. And occasionally a character steps up and surprises me. But when that happens, I go back and change the outline (or notecards in Scrivener).

    And this was a great explanation Barb. Having a meeting today, and will use the “What do I want them to do?” “What do I need to do so they can do it?” model.

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  4. Great post, Barb. I never know where a book is going myself, except in general terms, but that means there are always exciting surprises (and a few periods of utter panic) along the way. I wish I could plot ahead of time but my mind doesn’t seem to work that way. For a long time (back in the days before the Internet; heck, back in the days before MWA, SinC, RWA, or any of the other writers organizations), having read Phyllis A. Whitney’s books on writing, I thought I had to outline. Fortunately, I figured out that things went more smoothly when I didn’t try to force my square peg into a round hole.

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    1. Kathy/Kaitlyn–The fact that you, closing in on 50 published books, don’t outline makes me so much more comfortable and accepting of my “process.”

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  5. Love this, Barb! I am proud to call myself a pantser (not an organic writer, although I am pesticide-free). However, there is a method to my madness. I DO think and plan before I write, and I DO ask myself questions along the way. I’m saving this to share with my students. They often want me to teach them to outline. Sorry, babe–you’re in the wrong class!

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  6. I’m working on my first book and I’m always asking myself your question, “What do I want my readers to feel?” If I don’t feel something for the characters in a book I’m reading, I rapidly lose interest. So now my challenge is to write so that they feel. Most of the time though that challenge overwhelms me and maybe that is why I’m working on an outline. I practiced law for over twenty years and I would always prepare a rough outline for oral arguments, depositions and briefs. I can’t seem to let go of that and I think that’s the way my brain works best. I have to say though that my outline is way too long and perhaps if I gain experience writing, then I won’t have to use such a detailed outline any longer. It’s too early for me to tell. Anyway, I enjoyed your post!

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  7. I love the clarity of the questions you pose. One of the biggest problems I face in life and in writing is distraction from purpose. Your questions elegantly clarify purpose and the means to act upon it.

    I know just what you mean about needing to write to know what you think. I wrote my first book exactly that way. It felt natural but was very daunting as I tried to resuscitate many, many dead ends and turn what I had into something to read. For my next attempt I tried outlining and ended up incapacitated. I simply couldn’t think in those sorts of bulleted points.

    Now I work in a hybrid way that is both productive and honoring of my natural inclinations. For each new project I start a notebook. I begin writing down any questions about the story that occur to me and I answer them too. I keep writing different answers until I hit on one that feels right. Then I circle the right answer. All of the questions and answers allow me to discover through writing without the pressure of writing the actual story. As soon as I have some ideas I am sure of through this process I start assembling scenes in Scrivener. Before long, I have enough to start writing. For me, this is the best of both worlds. If I get stuck, I pull out my notebook for the project and read back through. Often times the answer is there. If it isn’t, I start writing more questions and even more answers.

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  8. Hi Barb, I always thought one of the best things about the Information Mapping method was that you could start with an outline, but you didn’t have to. You could just write a few “blocks” that you were sure about, add and remove content, and reorganize as you went along. In technical and business writing, that can be a great way to avoid writer’s block. Maybe that’s similar to what you do in your fiction writing.

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  9. Excellent post. Did you ever look at the intersection of the physical process of writing something down, as distinct from “thinking” it? I’ve always felt that something that passes through my hands, whether by pen/pencil or keyboard, is more deeply imprinted on my brain. That’s been true since high school, when I typed summaries for my history class. And on a related note, I’ve found verbalizing your thoughts may also make clear the lapses in logic or muddy thinking in them (which may be why I talk to myself a lot). Can you tell I’m a pantser?

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    1. Yes–I often take notes so that I am focused on the conversation and will remember it, even though I know I’ll never look at those notes again. Sometimes people whose brains work differently will say, “Don’t write this down. Just listen to me.” And I am always like, “Huh?”

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