Dec 24, 2018

Writing To Learn & Writing To Tell A Story


When we are writing to tell a story, keep the reader in mind. 

Some of us learn by writing

In his brilliant essay Managing Oneself, Drucker says we learn differently. Some of us learn by writing, some learn by listening, some learn by doing, some learn by talking.  Knowing how we learn is key to improving our performance.

The entire essay is worth reading. Here is the most relevant passage.
How do I learn? The second thing to know about how one performs is to know how one learns. Many first-class writers—Winston Churchill is but one example—do poorly in school. They tend to remember their schooling as pure torture. Yet few of their classmates remember it the same way. They may not have enjoyed the school very much, but the worst they suffered was boredom. The explanation is that writers do not, as a rule, learn by listening and reading. They learn by writing. Because schools do not allow them to learn this way, they get poor grades.
Schools everywhere are organized on the assumption that there is only one right way to learn and that it is the same way for everybody. But to be forced to learn the way a school teaches is sheer hell for students who learn differently. Indeed, there are probably half a dozen different ways to learn.
There are people, like Churchill, who learn by writing. Some people learn by taking copious notes. Beethoven, for example, left behind an enormous number of sketchbooks, yet he said he never actually looked at them when he composed. Asked why he kept them, he is reported to have replied, “If I don’t write it down immediately, I forget it right away. If I put it  into a sketchbook, I never forget it and I never have to look it up again.”
Some people learn by doing. Others learn by hearing themselves talk. A chief executive I know who converted a small and mediocre family business into the leading company in its industry was one of those people who learn by talking. He was in the habit of calling his entire senior staff into his office once a week and then talking at them for two or three hours. He would raise policy issues and argue three different positions on each one. He rarely asked his associates for comments or questions; he simply needed an audience to hear himself talk. That’s how he learned. And although he is a fairly extreme case, learning through talking is by no means an unusual method. Successful trial lawyers learn the same way, as do many medical diagnosticians (and so do I).
Of all the important pieces of self-knowledge, understanding how you learn is the easiest to acquire. When I ask people, “How do you learn?” most of them know the answer. But when I ask, “Do you act on this knowledge?” few answer yes. And yet, acting on this knowledge is the key to performance; or rather, not acting on this knowledge condemns one to nonperformance.

Irrespective of how we learn, the learning process is messy

When we are in school, we have it easy. We have syllabus, text books, teachers and students who help us learn stuff. The process is fairly well defined. In real world the learning process is messy, because the world itself is messy. We have to make sense of it, and take decisions one way or the other. Business leaders, policy makers, investors, traders, doctors - all have to look at complex, dynamic world, understand it, and do what may be necessary.

It's true of research and some journalism projects too.

In its review of Ryzard Kapuscinski's  Travels with Herodotus contains these fantastic lines
The life of a journalist such as Kapuscinski consists of untold fruitful deflections. One month he is in India. Then, at the drop of a hat, China is assigned as his patch. He is equally ignorant in both places. But any good journalist, like Herodotus himself, is driven on by an awareness of his own shocking ignorance. And it is that overwhelming need to dispel those clouds of ignorance, to find meaning and pattern amid the world's ceaseless tumult, that drives the serious reporter on.

To go from Point A, where you have more questions (often, not even questions) than answers, to Point B, where you have found out answers to some of the questions (and discovered new questions) can be a tortuous journey.

However, our 'write to communicate' path cannot follow our 'write to learn' path

The path you follow to think / write about the world is different from the path that a reader follows to learn about the world you are writing about. Some of the biggest problems with writing comes when we don't think about the path a reader takes.  

Larry McEnerney, Director of the University of Chicago's Writing Program beautifully explains the point using this illustration.

It's worth spending some time listening to him. It's for PhD students, but it has important lessons for everyone in the business of writing.

Inverted Pyramid is a great way to write a news report - quickly and effectively

One of the first things that journalists learn when they get into the profession is to learn the inverted pyramid structure. This kind of flattens the playing field for anyone entering the field. These two pages from Reuters Foundation Handbook for Journalists explains it pretty well.

However this structure has a limited use

Once we are in the field for sometime, we realise that it's use is somewhat limited. It's fantastic for filing daily news reports. But if you want to write a column, make an argument or write a feature, especially when you write a feature, this simply doesn't work.

In fact, spending too much time in journalism, in news reporting, blunts our ability to write well. Not necessarily. Some of the best narrative non fiction writers - Gay Talese, Malcolm Gladwell - went through the grind of daily reporting, and sticking to inverted pyramid structure. But they soon explored other forms - which is probably how we came to know about them.

All stories have their own structure

Syd Field, a screen writer, and a screen writing coach, offers this simple illustration.

After I read his fantastic series of books - Screenplay. Screenwriter's Workbook, Screenwriter's Problem Solver - I consciously looked for this structure in movies I liked, and they invariably followed this structure at a broad level.

In fact, the stories that we have heard as kids from our parents and grand parents pretty much follow the same structure.

Consider this Aesop's fable:
The Crow and the Pitcher
A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it.
He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair.
Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher.
Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher.
Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.
Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.
Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.
Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher.
At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life. 

We will find this fitting beautifully into Syd Field's Paradigm. Here are more stories to explore.

Minto's Pyramid Principle offers a good way to structure many types of stories

In his recent book, John McPhee, a fantastic writer who runs a writing workshop at Princeton, goes deep into how he structured some of his more complex pieces. For me, the main takeaway is that you have to think long and hard - and creatively - about the stories.

However, the most useful book that I have read on the subject is Barabara Minto's The Pyramid Principle, Logic in Writing and Thinking.

The biggest strength of the book is that it's super practical. She taught McKinsey consultants how to write, and distilled her key lessons in this book. Irrespective of what you might think about McKinsey consultants - or consultants in general this book is worth reading. Let me present just two images from the book now, and keep my key learnings from the book for another post.

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