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How to Write Effectively

Writing is an essential skill that involves a two-stage process and calls into play a variety of skills. The first phase is frequently called the prewriting phase. This includes topic selection, mental preparation of the content (both conscious and unconscious), researching the topic and organizing the information gathered.

The second phase is the actual performance of the writing task. This phase includes producing the material by hand or mechanically, and using grammatical rules for organizing, composing, editing and spelling to prepare the text.

There are many books on the market that address how to become a better writer. Anthony Carnevale sums up the key steps each writer should perform for all types of business writing as follows:

  • define the anticipated readership and purpose for addressing these readers
  • determine what form and style of communications are appropriate
  • generate and organize ideas
  • translate the message into a concise, accurate form
  • review, evaluate and revise the written product

Perhaps the most difficult task in any writing project is creating and organizing the ideas the writer wants to present. Many writers freeze when confronted by a blank page. Writers are tempted to rewrite and recycle what others have written.

The solution for producing new and creative ideas on demand lies in using whole brain techniques to tap into the full spectrum of each writer's personal knowledge and experience.

Clustering and mind mapping are two similar techniques that help you do this through the use of graphic display of ideas and their relationships. Both encourage creating and exploring patterns, making connections and discovering associations between new and old information, concepts and feelings.

Both clustering and mind maps start with a central idea, concept, topic or problem which is placed in the center of the page. Then other ideas are connected to the central topic by drawing lines to show the connections. Further connections are made until the topic is completely explored.

Mind Mapping

Use Both Sides of Your Brain, a book by Tony Buzan, introduced mind mapping as a method for more effective studying, note taking, reading and problem solving. This method is used in schools and businesses to help with improving not just writing, but many other aspects of communication and performance as well.

To draw a mind map, start with a word, symbol or image in the center of the page. Next, draw a broad line from the center in any direction and write the first main heading along the line. Continue to do the same for the rest of the main headings.

Next, add sub-headings for each of the main headings by drawing lines from the appropriate main heading to its sub-headings. Continue for as many layers of sub-headings as you need.

Create a Mind Map

Now, try your hand at creating a mind map of your own. Draw a mind map for developing a plan for finding a summer job. Write SUMMER JOB at the center of the page and draw the branches for the main headings and sub-headings for what you might need to do to land a summer job. If you have graphic capabilities, take a look at Alex's Mind Map for this project. Here's his action plan for getting a job this summer:

  • Make a list of jobs I could do
  • Make a list of places I might get a job
  • Make a list of people to talk to
  • Talk to the people on my list and ask for jobs and contacts
  • Apply at target companies
  • Check out newspapers and bulletin boards for employment ads

Clustering

Dr. Gabriele Rico developed clustering and introduced it in her book, Writing the Natural Way. Clustering is a method for tapping both sides of the brain that is very open ended, non-linear and non-judgmental.

As with mind mapping, the process starts with writing the central issue in the center of a page and drawing a circle, or bubble, around it. The next step is to write any associated ideas, feelings, situations, events or anything else that comes to mind anywhere on the page in a word or short phrase. Each is circled. The circles are then connected by lines or arrows that make the most sense.

At this stage of the clustering exercise, the most important element is to capture all associations that come without judgment. Include silly, funny, embarrassing, appropriate and inappropriate words and phrases. Work as quickly as possible without thinking about how to evaluate or organize what you come up with. Stop when you feel a shift that tells you you're done.

The next step of clustering is to examine the patterns that emerged and write about them. This may lead to developing additional clusters or starting with a new central topic.

Create Your Clusters

Now use clustering to create a story of your own. Place the word WINTER at the center of your page and draw a circle around it. Relax and think of whatever associations come up for you. Write these on the page and circle them. Draw lines and arrows to make connections between the circles as seems right to you. Continue for about two minutes.

When you're ready, write a paragraph to express what you would want to tell a good friend about your reaction to this topic. If you have graphic capabilities, take a look at Nicole's clusters. Here's her story:

I hate winter. It just goes on and on and all I want to do is sleep. But I can't, because I've got to get my college applications in. Everybody keeps asking me where I want to go and what I want to do. I have NO IDEA! I wish they'd quit bugging me. I wish it were summer. At least I'm going skiing at semester break. That will be a lot of fun and give me a break.

Comparison of Mind Mapping and Clustering

Reflect on how you felt while doing the two exercises. What was different about how you approached the two activities? Were the outcomes different?

Mind mapping is a more goal-oriented activity than clustering. When you pick a topic for your mind map, you're already clear on the issue you want to address. You start to organize what is known and the free associations they evoke by developing an imposed structure of headings and subheadings for the mind map.

Clustering evokes the structure of your problem solving through the process of creating your clusters. As you add circles and make the connections, you let the process lead you to discovering the underlying patterns. Your heading and sub-headings are defined and labeled after the clusters are completed.

How do you choose between the two techniques? Since mind mapping is based on knowing the central topic and having some sense of the main issues involved, it's a great way to approach outlining a paper or report, taking class notes, and exploring and organizing any goal-oriented project.

Clustering is an excellent tool for exploring "fuzzy" problems. Clustering opens up a topic to unexpected and unforeseen solutions. It helps you discover aspects of a problem or situation that you may not be able to see if you take a linear, goal-oriented approach.

Both techniques can help you become a more effective writer by using both sides of your brain.