Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Reverse engineer your writing

Artists have to write art proposals, artist statements, press releases or articles at some point in their practice. Many of us don’t feel comfortable sitting in front of a blank page and creating a good copy out of thin air. The “reverse engineering” technique is one I have been testing for years to overcome resistance.

Reverse engineering consists in learning how a product is made by taking it apart and looking into its components. Once you understand the structure and underlying principles of the product, you can build another one based on the same ideas.

Here is the process in 5 steps:

1. Just start writing. Allow yourself a first bad draft: you never write, you always re-write. Start anywhere and don’t worry about the order of your ideas or style at this stage. The key point is to commit all the ideas you have to paper, without worrying about how good they are or how they flow together. You are looking for quantity, not quality.

2. Extract the ideas behind your paragraphs. The goal is to sum-up each paragraph into one sentence, one expression or one word. For instance, the current paragraph can be summed-up in four words “Reverse engineering writing process”. You will discover that some paragraphs contain more than one idea and should be split.

3. Reorganize the content of your copy using your summaries. Once you have all your 1-sentence summaries group together paragraphs that develop the same or similar ideas. To find the structure of your copy, you can write the ideas in a linear fashion or draw a mind map (to learn more about mind maps, see Tony Buzan’s web site
). When this is done, put together your story with your “1-sentence” building blocks and connector words (like “because”, “then”, “however”). This way, you will see if the ideas flow in a logical way or if they need to be reshuffled.

4. Write your introduction and conclusion. Only after you know where you want to lead the reader you will be ready to write a good introduction. The same goes for your conclusion.

5. Refine and review spelling and style. Now that you have a sound structure, it is time to polish your writing. Re-write, weed out redundant words and simplify or expand paragraphs as necessary. Review again to correct style and spellings. It is better if you can leave a couple of days between steps 4 and 5 and between successive drafts in stage 5.

There are many advantages to this process:

  • If you use the “reverse engineering” method, it does not matter where you start.
  • By making smaller blocs (your 1-line sentences), it is easy to organize your ideas.
  • It also becomes easier to tailor your ideas to different formats. You should be able to pitch your ideas in 30 seconds, in 5 minutes and in 10 minutes ; or when writing: in 1 sentence, 1 paragraph or 1 article. Once you grasp the logic of your ideas using the “1-sentence summaries” and you know how the different arguments branch out, you can do that.

I wrote more than 100 articles on my blog since August 2007 with this method, as well as the present article. Give it a try and see how much easier it becomes to write.

4 Bonus writing tips
  • Carry a notebook around and write down your ideas, any ideas.

  • Keep a running list of topics you want to write about.

  • Stories are not only for fiction. Can you make your point by telling a story?

  • Stop in the middle of the piece you are writing. Your brain is craving for completion and if you stop in the middle of a paragraph or a sentence, it will be easier to start again.

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