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.
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?