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    Writing to Explore

    Wednesday, February 09, 2011

    Much of business writing is of the "fill in the blanks" variety. Your company may have standard templates for memos, letters, and reports. The actual content can be organized and filled in by using an SEA, a BEBE, or an AIDA format. That makes planning and execution of common tasks trouble-free and efficient.

    But what if you need to write something more unusual or more personal? What if you feel uncertain of your grasp of the topic or of its reception? Sometimes taking the time for exploratory writing is actually the quickest, most energy-efficient way to complete a writing task.

    Writing expert Peter Elbow compares these two approaches to growing and cooking. In the first, standard templates and forms of organization provide a framework for your piece of writing to grow on. (Imagine a rose bush climbing a trellis, for example.) In the second, ingredients are simmered together until something delicious results.

    Elbow's suggestion in times of uncertainty is to freewrite. Freewriting, he explains, is about turning off the critical-editor part of the brain and just getting words down, ignoring errors in spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and so on. He suggests actually practicing this skill two or three times a week for an hour at a sitting, to develop your own natural writing ability and voice.

    Faced with a tough writing assignment, Elbow recommends a special application of freewriting. In Writing Without Teachers, he presents a scenario in which you have four hours to get a tough piece of writing completed. Elbow suggests spending the first 45 minutes just spilling thoughts on paper, then 15 minutes rereading and thinking about what you've written. That's one hour down. In the second hour, he suggests doing the same (45 minutes freewriting and 15 minutes evaluating), but starting with your new understanding. In the third hour, he suggests freewriting again for 45 minutes to thoroughly explore what the first two hours have revealed, then using the hour's last 15 minutes to plan your final draft - which will itself fill the final hour.

    If you're like me, that approach may seem daunting. I know from experience that freewriting can be tough to start. We are so results-focused that writing to explore looks like time wasted. On the other hand, I also know how effectively freewriting - even just a journal or diary - can improve our writing and thinking skills. That improvement translates directly into time saved.

    Have you had experience with freewriting? What effects has it had on your own business writing? Are you courageous enough to try Elbow's four-hour scenario? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by Sabrina Campagna