Think back to a time you stared at a blank screen, not sure how to start writing that memo, press release, report, or presentation. Stark and harsh, emptiness intimidates.
It can, anyway, unless you know exactly what you want to say. Seeing a vast sea of nothing can deepen feelings of being, literally, adrift. (It sure does for me.)
Now, think of a time when you wrote down a shopping list before heading to the grocery store. Or jotted down the things you needed to take on a trip before you packed. Simple recipes or driving directions can serve a similar role: steady reassurance. When consulting such reminders, I tend to check them repeatedly in tackling the task at hand.
Here's my secret to writing: before I start, I make a map. (Really, it’s more of a list.) I've been doing it for decades for news stories with urgent deadlines as well as for projects that took months to complete. It always makes the writing part easier. I find it keeps things clicking smartly along. When I feel lost, I just look at my map.
Tips for how to make a map-like list for your next written task:
1. At the top of the page briefly describe the audience.
2. Next, write the main reason for writing this. What is the most important thing for the audience to do? Keep it short.
3. Now come the main ideas. I use a dash or asterisk to start each item, so I can just type them without worrying about the order.
4. After the first dash or asterisk, write down one major idea the piece must include, such as the reason you’re writing it.
5. Then, write down another major idea the piece must include.
6. Keep going until you’ve written down each major idea the written work must discuss.
7. Don't forget to list any call to action as a main idea.
8. Determine whether you need to include an attachment or link.
9. If you need information you don’t already have on hand, note that in parenthesis after the major idea it concerns.
10. When you’ve got all of the main ideas, go back and check your first two lines: Who needs to know and why? Do your main ideas all relate to those? Delete any that don’t.
11. Of the main ideas that remain, do any stand out as the most important? Do others need to be discussed in sequence to make sense? Is one a good way to end?
12. Based on that analysis, reorder the main ideas from first to last—it’s OK if some don’t have a precise position and could appear interchangeably (just note that in parenthesis.)
13. Your map-list is now done.
14. Start writing, working through it.
15. As you incorporate items into the piece you’re writing, delete them from the list. This way, the map displays only those ideas you haven’t yet written about in the piece.
Here’s a sample for a news release about the launch of a new strong and flexible fabric created, in part, from recycled materials.
Audience: Mainstream journalists, trade media, bloggers, and analysts who cover sustainable products, textiles and high-tech fabrics.
Main reason for writing: The audience needs to know about the product and its unique and important benefits.
* name of company introducing the product
* name of product
* major benefit it offers, and who'll get that benefit
* why and how
* unusual uses, attributes ((must yet confirm descriptions))
* lively quote from company exec. ((still need approval))
* another major benefit and why
* another lively quote
* how to learn more, link to website and social media connections
* brief details about the company ((order of these last two could be switched))
It might feel like extra work to do a map-list before you write. But with practice, it gets easier. Doing so is now just part of my writing process. And I am convinced it makes things easier and smoother.
Try it. You might disagree. I’d love to hear what you think.
Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Sydney, Australia, before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. You can read Becky’s blog Framing What Works.