Wrangling your fat, aimless cows into useful writing

All writing starts with ideas, just as all stampedes start with cows. Good writing wrangles those ideas into a herd, then spurs them into motion. Weak writing plops those ideas down in ones and twos on the page, like cows milling about a pasture.

Ideas in your writing should be a lot more like a stampede than a pasture dotted by aimless, fat cows. Stampedes surge. Stampedes roar. Stampedes have no time for bullshit. You don’t forget a stampede, but if you wander around pastures you’ll probably end up with poop-covered shoes.

Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede
Listless cow is in your herd, thwarting your stampede

How, then, do you wrangle your ideas (the fat, aimless cows) into a strong piece of writing (the stampede)?

Note to self: Next installment of Editing Pony should be about not torturing metaphors.

In business writing, a good example for this lesson might be a languishing project that you inherit. Such a project is likely to have

  • multiple participants who aren’t personally accountable for the ultimate objective
  • multiple dependencies blaming poorly understood external factors
  • lots of meetings where the first 45 minutes is spent trying to remember where we left off last time

These are listless cows, wandering about a pasture.

What the project does not have is focus, direction, or momentum. You can provide it with a tight project directive, created with three simple actions:

1. Gather the herd

Happy cattle dispersed into small, separate groups rarely stampede. When spooked, they just run a few feet and settle back into grazing. Your first step is to bring everything together into your own corner of the pasture. To do this, create four lists:

  • Deliverables
    What needs to be created, by whom, and for what purpose? (e.g., Frank write a data entry app to capture names at the event.)
  • Dependencies
    In order to create those deliverables, what needs to happen first, and who needs to do it? (e.g., Marketing needs to provide the data specs to Frank.)
  • Gaps
    Where dependencies and deliverables don’t have a name attached, call them out. Or if a critical step has been previously unidentified, list it here. (e.g., Frank has the wrong development tools for the target platform.)
  • Actions
    What immediate actions need to be taken, by whom, and by when are they needed? (e.g., Mary call Marketing to demand the data specs, by Friday.)

What don’t you see above? You don’t see executive summary or background. You don’t see templated document structure. You don’t see any “how we got here.” That’s all a waste of time. Spend a sentence or two on the ultimate goal of the project if you must, but no more.

In other types of writing, the same principles apply. The lists may be different, but you still need to put all your points together in one place and see where they connect, see the dependencies, and identify the gaps. It’s nothing more than simple storyboarding, really, but it’s shocking how often people skip this step and jump right to composition before they know what they’re writing. Which leads to crap output, or to “writer’s block.”

In high school essays, for example, this step forces the student to forget about “the paper” and focus on the points, which ultimately leads to better citations, stronger arguments, and a more complete product. In fiction, this step may identify themes, characters, major plot points, and timeline.

2. Thin the herd

When a project has stagnated or your ideas have been muddled, you’ll probably spend too long making the lists in step 1, and the lists will stretch out, full of rambling description. Kill all that crap. If a deliverable is not absolutely necessary for project success, eliminate it. If someone claims a dependency on a vague external event, nail that down or reject the dependency.

Send 'em packing!
Send ’em packing!

The goal in this step is to find and break those circles of discussion that keep folding in on themselves. Someone always calls for “another meeting to discuss it,” or someone whines about an external dependency no one in the meeting has accountability for. Stampedes can be stopped by turning the front cows back into the herd; get rid of the slow, easily frightened cows that are likely to thwart your stampede.

The output of step 2 should be a terse, tight set of lists free of needless description. A document that shows only those things that need doing, who has to do them, and when they have to get done. If an item doesn’t drive to your ultimate goal, cut it.

Again, this step is critical in other writing. In high school essays, this is where structure is imposed on the arguments. In fiction, this is where you fill in plot holes and get rid of extraneous scenes and characters; for some authors this looks like an outline.

3. Direct the herd

In our project example, it’s time to kick the team into action. But don’t just toss the project plan out to the group; connect individually with each person assigned to a deliverable, gap, or action. Avoid sending anything to the whole group–that wastes the time of the uninvolved and gets ignored by people who need to act. Where gaps exist, assign people to fill them. Where dependency delivery dates don’t support the project, get them tightened. You’ve now got a document that shows why.

With these simple steps, you’ve taken a stagnant, aimless project and pointed everyone in one direction. You’ve told them exactly what they need to do and when it’s needed. You’ve eliminated the pointless and extraneous, and you’ve illuminated the gaps. And really, all you’ve done is what any good writer does.

If your project is huge, or you’re writing a novel, this set of techniques nests and scales. I do this before I start a novel, focusing first on the entirety of the plot arc. Then as I write, I do it again for each major section, and then for each chapter within each section. The same could be done for a project or a research paper. All my novels were written this way.

Conclusion: Not all metaphors work

I really was hoping that my cow stampede metaphor would carry me through this post, but it kind of stinks. Even though I’ve been to a rodeo in Texas, inside I’m just not cowboy enough, I guess.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

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