All people are equal: My manifesto



“Alt-right,” which these cowards call themselves in a vain attempt to deflect identification as nazis, expressing their fear of everyone who’s not white in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: courtesy CBC.

I have been unfriended on Facebook by Robert Bidinotto, a writer with a decidedly conservative bent, who commands quite a following. As far as I can tell, very few in his group disagree with him, and the overall tone of the discussions is like a tea-party, where everyone basically agrees.

My sin was apparently disagreeing with the tribal wisdom, or maybe the hegemony of Robert Bidinotto. He and his followers are entitled to their opinions, of course, but I think the point of divergence of opinions between them and me are some basic, underlying tenets.

It’s useless to try to logically argue against ideology at times like this. When you start arguing against people’s deepest beliefs, they respond emotionally, not rationally. So I won’t do that. But I have been accused of various things, so I want to set the record straight about my beliefs.

Don’t let yourself be manipulated

The recent history of Western culture has many examples of politics being emotionally manipulated. Just look at how so many mainstream commentators demonize the terms “liberal” and “leftist,” let alone the irrational, visceral response Americans have to the words “socialist” and “communist.”

This same kind of emotional, irrational demonization has been successfully used against labour unions, environmental organizations, hunters, meat producers and consumers, and community groups of many different stripes. It’s used against the Black Lives Matter movement, too, albeit with less success so far.
It’s hard not have an emotional response to issues that affect our lives, but the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend show very plainly where that can take us. The protesters against the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee were irrational, chanting “You won’t replace us! Jews won’t replace us!”
They’re acting out of fear. Deep, knee-shaking and wholly unjustified fear. Fear given life through manipulation.

And the counter-protesters reacted out of anger. Justifiable anger, but the violence was unjustified and counter-productive, only adding to the racists’ narrative that they’re under threat.

Coverage and media reaction has also been emotional too, even by the professional news media.
Here’s where I had the falling out with the conservative tribe.

Blame the messenger

Robert Bidinotto’s pet peeve is the “leftist narrative” of the “mainstream media,” which he calls the MSM. He’s not the only one to make this assertion, and while I could easily refute the existence of a leftist bias held by a media that is mostly owned by multinational megacorporations, I won’t. Bidinotto kept posting photographs that cast the counter-protesters in unfavourable, red-tinged light, captioning them “pictures you won’t see in the MSM.”

Well, here are a couple.

Antifa protesters in Charlottesville exercising their Second Amendment rights. Source: New York Times — the Grey Lady of the mainstream media. I’m just happy that the ink doesn’t come off on your fingers as much anymore.

The counter-protesters, with a suspiciously red flag, raised fist, and “solidarity” slogans, in Charlottesville. These dastards dared to support equality. Photo source: NYT.

Where I crossed the line, apparently, was in objecting to comments that said “the lefties were just as bad as the protesters.” My favourite was the one guy who said he’d “defend his home if leftists were throwing rocks at his windows.”

When did that happen?

It’s depressing to read all the posts that blame the “leftists” as much as the racists for Charlottesville and other violence.

It’s also aggravating to read how the “MSM” favours one side over the other. I don’t know about you, but I understand those who forgive opponents of racism.

So anyway, I wrote a few replies on this Facebook group, calling out those who drew this false equivalency between the racists and the counter-protesters. Yes, both were wrong to commit violence. I agree with that, fully, because violence did not solve anything or even advance the argument.

But the groups are not the same, not even the “antifa,” or anti-fascists. Here’s why: the racists promote oppression, the abrogation of other people’s rights.

The counter-protesters were a wide assortment of groups from churches, community organizations and, yes, some organized leftist organizations. But as I said, “leftist” is not necessarily bad. Racism is. The counter-protesters came to support equal rights.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

To get to the root of the issue, here are my underlying tenets. I guess this is a little manifesto.

  1. All people are equal. Without exception. While some people face disabilities and other exceptional challenges, they may have abilities that the rest of us cannot guess at.
  2. In corollary, we’re all fallible. We’re all often wrong. Even me. This whole essay could be way off. And whether you agree with me or not, you could equally be wrong. There is just a lot more that we don’t know about the universe and ourselves than we do know.
  3. Degrading the natural environment is a slow form of suicide and genocide.
  4. No human mind can comprehend infinity or divinity. We are limited (see #2, above). Therefore, all religions are at best useful metaphors for the way the universe and people work.
  5. Protecting free speech, even by Nazis and racists, is vital to preserving liberty. Hate speech is abhorrent. Chanting “Jews will not replace us” is chilling.But repressing racism, or any other ideology, does not destroy it, nor does it make the problem go away. That’s been proven through history. Nazism has not gone away. Repressing socialism in the U.S. has not eradicated it. Repressing Judaism or Christianity has only made them stronger.The racist jerks in Charlottesville have exposed their hatred, and it’s far better that all of us see it than it be allowed to grow unseen.
  6. It’s better to object than to be offended. Who cares if you’re offended? If you are, then object to it in a thoughtful, constructive way. Suggest solutions.
  7. Capitalism is not necessarily the best way to organize an economy. It’s a relatively recent invention, and there have been many other models over the millennia of civilization.Success of an economic model depends on what your goals are. If the goals of the current North American economic model are to concentrate as much wealth as possible in as few hands as possible, hollow out the middle class and drive household debt as high as possible, while making education so expensive that it’s impossible for most people to ever escape the debt-poverty cycle, then modern capitalism has been very successful, indeed.
  8. Unions are not evil. While I remain skeptical of the unionists’ claims that they’re solely responsible for the two-day weekend, vacation pay, etc., they can certainly take a lot of credit for those advances.
  9. Government is not evil. In republics and democracies, government is the instrument of community will. Yes, often it’s clumsy. There are many examples where its actions are the manipulations of a particular group—usually a small group of very wealthy people. But it’s not inherently evil. And in fact, government action in the West has demonstrably led to many improvements in human life.Likewise, regulation is not evil. Regulations keep poisons out of our water. Regulations ensure packagers don’t sell us food that has spoiled. Regulations have reduced air pollution in our cities.And government spending is not evil. Governments organizing health care and education is not evil.These are investments that return more to the taxpayers than they cost. It’s not about “entitlement.” It’s about where we, all of us, in society, who vote, decide to put our resources in order to build the kind of community and life that we want.
  10. “Left” and “right” are useless terms to describe our political debate and violence today. The divisions between the “alt-right” and the “liberals” encompass so much more than how each side feels the economy should be regulated. And don’t think that adding a second authoritarian-libertarian axis helps much, as the libertarians describe. The situation is far more complex than that.“Left” and “right” are terms used by those in power who seek to divide and thereby control the rest of us. Grouping Nazis and racists with economic conservatives is extremely insulting to conservatives, with whom I often (but not always) disagree. But the ones I know personally are not racists. Okay, some are. But I object to their opinions (see #6, above).
  11. Science is the best way to make decisions and move forward, because the scientific method by definition seeks what really works, and what’s verifiable. Climate change? Look to the science.
  12. The globe is warming. There’s no credible debate about that. Climate change deniers are like the people 20 years ago who argued there was no scientific link between smoking and lung disease.
  13. We can get past this. Without denying our emotions, our humanity, we can respect each other. Start by acknowledging our equality, and our equal ability to be wrong. Leave religion aside for the moment. Look at the facts, and our own goals. As long as our goals are not oppression, abrogation of human rights, we can negotiate solutions.

So there. My manifesto. I am open to debate. Like I said, I could be wrong. I was wrong once before.

Fire, fury and quiet



The Furies

Carl Rahl’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1852). Wikimedia

This has been an extreme week when it comes to North Korea—extreme political tension, extreme possible consequences and extreme differences in communications strategy, tone and messages.

Furious rhetoric

There’s no shortage of reaction to and analysis of the continuing verbal exchange between the Trump White House and the leadership in Pyongyang. I’ll let others debate the merits of two national leaders threaten each other with nuclear annihilation. What I will say is that the rhetoric itself is extreme, and shows an extremity of intention.

On the other hand, two days ago the world learned that Hyeon Soo Lim, Pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, was released from prison in North Korea. Pastor Lim had been sentenced to hard labour for life for sedition—in the words of the North Korean state, for attempting to destroy North Korea through religion.

Canada sent a delegation, including the senior national security advisor, to North Korea earlier this week to negotiate the pastor’s release. Apparently, the Swedish embassy was involved, too, providing consular support to Pastor Lim over these past two years because Canada does not have an embassy in North Korea.

This came as a huge surprise to the public. Apparently, there have been communications behind the scenes among Canada, North Korea and Sweden for some time. The opposite in tone and volume from Donald Trump’s style of shouting threats of “fury, fire and power.”

How to choose your approach

Kim Jong-un does not back down to threats of nukes.

Image source: SkyNews

There are many who have supported Trump’s messaging. “It’s the language that Kim Jong-Un understands.” One author described it as “mad dog complex”: because nuclear war would destroy all sides in a conflict, each has to make the other believe they’re willing to use nukes, to make the opposition back down.

On the other hand, the Canadian and Swedish governments’ approach to communication, while not at all dramatic, was effective. They wanted to have Pastor Lim released from jail, and that’s what happened.

This is an excellent example of strategic communications in action. Whether your communications is effective always comes down to knowing your audience and knowing what you’re trying to achieve.

With the Canadians and Swedes, the audience was the North Korean government and judiciary. The goals was the release of the pastor. And it was effective.

When it comes to Trump and his communications, the strategy is completely different—if there is a strategy at all.

A guess at the strategy

I don’t have any insight into Trump’s mind or the communications team he has working for him, but I will assume that they do attempt to develop a communications strategy, with goals, hoped-for outcomes, audience analysis, key message development and so on. All the elements of a communications strategy.

So I will attempt to guess what the strategy was by looking at it from the receiving end.

Donald Trump threatens

Image source: The Independent

Threats of “fire and fury” have not worked—they’ve only escalated the rhetoric and the tension. Yet they continue.

Threats have an inherent problem: if you don’t follow through with them, you lose credibility not only with your enemy, who will no longer be afraid of you, but also with your friends. Unfortunately, following through with the threat of nuclear war, as I said, will only lead to losers, with no winners.

What is the goal, then? Before answering that, let’s look at the audience.

Trump’s audience is not Kim Jong-un. His messaging, whether spoken or tweeted, are not directed to Kim, but to other Americans. To the media, political aides, and the voters.

Trump is not trying to achieve peace—he’s bolstering the United States’ reputation as the greatest military power in the world, and his own as a strong man.

Trump’s “brinksmanship” is not a strategy to solving the North Korean problem. It’s a tactic in a long-term strategy to get re-elected, because he perceives that his supporters, his “base,” react well to his bullying and showing off.

What it will achieve in terms of international diplomacy—even international war or peace and the lives of billions—is not part of the calculations.

 

Breaking news: Donald Trump resigns presidency



Citing weariness with the sham he’s perpetrated over the past two years, Donald Trump has announced he will step down as President of the United States of America. The office will pass to Vice-President Mike Pence, effective immediately.

“I just can’t do it anymore. It’s been an unbearable, overwhelming weight on my shoulders, to maintain this pretense of helping the average American while continually taking steps and signing orders that clearly make their lives worse,” he said.

“Cutting the Environmental Protection Agency, deregulation of the financial sector, deregulation of industries, cutting taxes for the rich, and the new health insurance plan, all those measures are plainly transfers of wealth from the middle class to the richest one-tenth of one percent. That’s it. Deregulating coal won’t do anything at all, other than reduce some marginal costs. It won’t bring back a single job in the coal sector.”

“Another thing I found particularly difficult was pretending that I have the vocabulary of a seven-year-old.”

Then there’s all the measures that will do nothing at all, other than put yet more money into multinational corporations’ accounts, like deregulating coal. I mean, how could you not see through that

The announcement stunned commentators from across the political spectrum. It also clearly surprised Trump’s advisors.

Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, was caught off guard by the announcement. “Umm, yes, well, Mr. Trump, President Trump, I should say, former President Trump has stated what he believes. He clearly believes what he said, and I am now obliged to say that everything this administration has done since taking office has been designed to make things better for a few billionaires, like Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson, and their flunkies, such as, well, myself. And yes, everyone else was made worse off. For me, that was the biggest bonus.”

Mr. Trump had more surprises today, as well. For instance, he castigated the right-wing media that had supported him. “I think what really was the last straw for me was the way the sycophants at Fox News and other stations just swallowed everything I said, every outrageous statement, and started defending it. It was nauseating.”

Fox and Friends was completely unintelligible today, with all commentators and on-screen personalities babbling simultaneously.

Sean Hannity of Fox News and the syndicated Sean Hannity Show said “I, for one, would be proud to be made worse off by President Trump’s administration, and I say with confidence that tradition will be continued under incoming President Presumptive Mike Spence. I mean, Pants.”

Rachel Maddow, of the Rachel Maddow Show, who passes for a leftist in the United States, said “Wow. I … wow. Wow.”

Former President Barack Obama was reached on vacation. He said “No way. No freakin’ way am I coming back. I don’t care what you offer. Did you know that I actually managed to quit smoking since I stepped down? No way am I going back to that. Michelle would kill me, anyway.

“I knew he wouldn’t last,” the former President continued. “I’m not going to say ‘I told you so,’ because even in my wildest dreams, I never thought that an egotist like Donald Trump would resign. So yes, I am surprised.

“Put away the handcuffs. I am not resuming the office of President.”

In related news, the Breitbart so-called news site now shows only the picture of a mushroom cloud.MushroomCloud

April fool!

Knee injuries and communication



KneeBrace smallerIf you follow my communication on Facebook, you’ll know that last week, I injured my knee pretty severely in a mundane household accident. (My older son, The Blond Ravin’, says that’s proof that no one should undertake home improvements, but that’s another post I’ll have to figure out how to connect with “communication.”)

I ended up spending two days in the hospital — not two solid days, but two interrupted days, requiring several trips back and forth. The experience provided me with several observations about communication in action. And as you probably figured, ample time in waiting rooms, which afforded opportunities to get some writing done.

What happened

I simply slipped on the stairs as I was taking down some dangling glass plates, about 9 x 22 cm, in preparation for replacing a chandelier. I have taken down those plates for cleaning many times without incident.

But last Tuesday evening, when I had about five of the plates in my hand, I thought that was enough to carry down in one load for fear of dropping them on the stairs. I was standing on about the ninth or tenth step at the time. I turned, my heel slipped over the edge of the stair, and as I started to fall, all I thought was “Don’t drop the glass!”

I don’t know whether I went down one step or two. But when my heel hit the lower step, my right knee bent the wrong way. I felt a pain in my kneecap that made my vision go completely white.

And I dropped the glass plates, hearing at least two shattering on the hardwood floor below.

(“See?” my younger son, Super Nicolas said later. “That’s the trouble with hardwood. It’s super slippery, and it’s hard.)

The whole family came to see what had happened and my sons helped me down the remaining stairs. I limped to a couch and sat, as the family cleaned the shattered glass.

That was the end of my home renovation work for the day. And as it was already getting late, I decided not to seek medical attention at the time, as that would require going to the hospital emergency room. And you know what that means: hours of waiting.

So, I took some Tylenol and iced my knee, and then went to bed.

swollenKneeThe next morning, I saw just how swollen my knee was. I found a pair of crutches we had bought for Super Nicolas after he injured his ankle in some kind of sport (I don’t remember whether it was cross-country bicycling, rock climbing, hiking or what) and managed to adjust them so they were short enough for me. Then I went to work in my home office, interrupted several times:

  • the arrival of the contractor who came to replace the chandelier
  • his dropping and breaking of at least on more of the glass plates that I had left dangling on the old chandelier after my mishap
  • the arrival of a repairman for the clothes dryer
  • calls to and from two different IT specialists to figure out why a client’s computer would not connect to my home WiFi network.

As you can understand, I didn’t make a lot of progress that day. But all the limping across the house on a crutch sure didn’t make my knee feel better.

By the end of the day, despite aspirin and icing to reduce swelling, my knee wasn’t smaller. Super Nicolas compared it to a large grapefruit.

(Actually, he said “Dad, you should go to the hospital for your knee.”

“Why?” responded.

“Well, it’s the size of an apple.” He went to the kitchen to fetch an apple. “Oh, knees are about the size of apples. Okay, it’s the size of a grapefruit.”)

He was right. I resolved that if the swelling did not go down after another night of aspirin and ice, I would seek medical attention.

The next morning, the knee was no better. I managed to get an appointment in the afternoon with my family doctor. (She’s great. Shout out to Dr. Anne Fraser at the Westend Family Care Clinic!)

In the late afternoon, my wife drove me to the clinic. Using Super Nicolas’s crutch I limped in.  Dr. Fraser described my knee as “spectacular. The red colour and the size — spectacular!” She also said that in her 30 years of practice, I was the first to walk in, even using a crutch, with that kind of injury. (I told you I was badass.)

She advised me to go for immediate x-rays. On the requisition chart, she wrote “In case of boney trauma, send patient to emerg. immediately.”

Well, I decided to go home for supper first. Roxanne then drove me to the hospital for x-rays. I told her not to wait — I had my iPad, and I discovered that the hospital near me has gotten over its irrational fear of cell phones and actually installed a free guest WiFi network!

The x-ray area had no waiting, and the technician called the radiology doctor, the one qualified to interpret the results, at home right away. Within 40 minutes, the radiology department receptionist told me to go to emergency.

“Do I have boney trauma?” I asked her.

“I’m sorry. I’m not allowed to pass on that kind of information to patients. But your form says to refer the patient to Emergency immediately if any bone damage is found.”

In other words, add two and two, idiot. I mean, patient.

The communications lesson

In Canada, at least, and probably in the U.S. and most of the world that has adopted the Western medical philosophy, medical professionals seem to have a policy of not sharing information with patients. Have you ever tried to look at your own chart? I did once and the nurse in the ward yelled at me for it. (Not this time — that was some years ago, in a different hospital and a different city.)

Creative Commons

Non-medical people cannot dispense medical information in a hospital. And doctors are notoriously hard to talk to, because they’re just so busy. So the person with the least information is the patient — about his or her own health!

The next step was to crutch-walk to the Emergency department, which offered more observable moments in communication. But I see that I’ve rambled on for quite long already, so I’ll tell you that whole story in my next post. I will say here, though, that I was very impressed by the courtesy and care I received at the Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa.

But I will end by saying that I spent long periods over the next couple of days sitting or lying in a number of different rooms in the hospital. I finished the last chapter of my next book, Dead Man Lying: A Lei Crime Kindle World novella. So something came out of it.

Kathleen Valentine, a wonderful writer and good friend, tagged me in a Facebook “7-7-7 Challenge,” where I post seven lines from page 7 of my work in progress. You can read that here.

A joke means so much more than the punchline



overstuffed-suitcase1Some communications pack a lot of information into a very few words. A skit on the CBC comedy program The Irrelevant Show last weekend is the best example I have heard in a long time.

A sketch started with a narrator explaining that in about the year 2050 (or maybe it was 2030—I’m not sure), humanity figured out time travel. Shortly after that, the people in charge of the time machines had to send an investigator to find out why so many people went back to 1972 but refused to return.

This is part of the conversation between the investigator and the escaper to 1972. Keep in mind that’s it’s reconstructed from memory, so it may not be precise, but it captures the idea:

Escaper to 1972: I finished my university degree. It cost me $1000.

Investigator: For books?Escaper to 1972: For the YEAR! And most of it was covered by grants. When I graduated, I applied to a Want Ad in the newspaper, and I got the job.

Investigator: A contract, right?

Escaper to 1972: Permanent, full time, with benefits. I have a bottle of scotch in my desk at work. My boss gave it to me! Last week, I got on an airline flight with a full bottle of shampoo in my carry-on!

HorselaughLater, I shared that with my good friend, who said “Yes, it was great to be a white man in 1972.”

Good point. 1972 was not as rosy for women, black people, Asians, Indigenous people, gay people—everyone we so casually lump together as “minorities.” But at the same time, have we lost something valuable that we used to take for granted?

I can accept the idea that large bottles of shampoo somehow pose a threat to airliners, and I’m not greatly inconvenienced by the restrictions against them.
The changes we have accepted in education and employment in Canada and even more so in the U.S. are much greater, have much more profound effects on everyone, and yet elicit far less complaint. 

When I began university, I think tuition was just under $800 a year. Not per course, for the year. I grumbled when I spent under $200 for all my books for the semester. And while I made around six bucks an hour in my summer job, it was enough to pay for tuition, books and residence. There wasn’t much left over, but I got used to living, and spending, like a student. 

Today, I have two kids in university. They’re both over 20 and still live with their parents, my wife and me. That’s typical today, whereas when I was their age, nearly all my friends lived apart from their parents. The few that still “lived at home” were the exceptions.

I don’t need to repeat the many reports already published about the economic straights of today’s university students

Why have we allowed ourselves to give up those things we once had? Jobs that paid living wages and the opportunity for an education and to give your children an education? WorkerToday

Things were not great for everyone

As my friend said, “It was great to be a white man in 1972.” I am very happy that our society has made the strides it has in sexual and racial equality, in human rights, in health care and scientific knowledge.

But is the cost of equal rights (which have not yet been fully realized, by the way) the elimination of the middle class, and turning an entire generation into debt slaves?

What do you think?

Writing tip: Don’t try to be a writer



Photo: Rubin Starset (Creative Commons licensed)

The most important writing tip of all is: Keep it simple.

Too many people try to be writers. They get stuck trying to construct new kinds of sentences, trying to shine or to equal Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. Or worse, they try to write like a business person speaks—or worst of all, like a politician.

Instead, try to tell your story or get your point across.

Some writers and editors recommend writing without any revising. Just get the words down, worry about grammar, spelling, tense, voice or anything but the ideas. That requires knowing clearly what those ideas are. (See my previous series of posts, “Get a GRIP” for more about making sure you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to write before you start writing). Just state as simply and as bluntly as you can what you want to say. Almost always, that’s the most effective—that is, that kind of writing achieves the goal you started with.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; you can always go back and fix them. Writing means re-writing. Once you have a draft, you can move sentences and paragraphs around, change words and clarify your expression. But you can’t do that until you have something written down.

Examples:

Wherever possible, use verbs instead of strings of nouns and adjectives.

Instead of:

  • “On issues related to …”—write “about”
  • “in the six-month period” of “over the course of”—write “between March 1 and August 31”
  • “expressed discontent with”—write “were dissatisfied”
  • “taking a leadership role”—write “leading”
  • “relates to the fact that”—write “because”
  • “in recent years”—write “recently”
  • “would expect to”—write “expects”
  • “these measures enabled management to discern any areas in which improvements can be made by operations”—write ”management could identify improvements operations could make …”
  • “the regulated firm is typically given 30 days to respond”—write “the regulated firm usually has 30 days to respond”
  • “X achieved high rankings for new online presentation of resources and tools”—write “X revised its website, making online tools and resources easier to access.”

I recommend dropping the phrase “achieved high ranking,” because that focuses on the organization’s goals, not the reader’s. Why should they care about the company’s satisfaction rankings? What they care about is what it does for them. Yes, there may be some value perceived in the testimonial aspect of high satisfaction ratings, but still, what is important in that example is the new functionality of the website.

See how much shorter and clearer the revised messages are?

What are your pet peeves—what phrases or styles of writing bug you the most?

Get a GRIP, part 4: the Plan



While this is part 4 of this series of posts, this is the fourth step in pre-writing—the stages you have to follow before you start writing even the first draft of your brilliant document. If you recall, I call the process “getting a GRIP.”

G – goal or purpose—what you hope to achieve with your writing

R – reader or audience—the most important ingredient

I – idea or thesis—what you’re trying to say

Now, the Plan, or outline.

Creating an outline is the biggest favour you, as a writer, can do for yourself.

I know, there are a lot of writers who say they prefer writing “by the seat of their pants.” I’ve learned that approach wears out a lot of pant seats. With an outline, you can make sure that you have covered everything you need to cover in your document, whether it’s a memo, a report or a novel. An outline is like a road-map: it helps you tell, at a glance, whether you’re getting toward your destination or resolution, what are the obstacles in the way, and whether there isn’t a better route to follow.I have tried writing both with and without outlines.

Once, I interviewed a very interesting typeface designer. I thought he was fascinating, and I even thought I had a great lead. So immediately after the interview was over, I turned on the computer and dove right in. I wrote about a thousand words when I realized I could not logically go any further, and I had not written anything important, or even readable, yet.

So, I deleted everything and started over. I wrote a new lead and another 400 to 500 words. Got stuck. Deleted. Started over again. Eventually, I realized that I needed to figure out what I wanted to say with this article, and in what order. I moved away from the computer, took out a pen and a piece of paper (I know, I’m a cave-man) and wrote a thesis statement and an outline. You don’t have to write down an outline; if you can remember a lot of different ideas in the right order, you can do it in your head. But you still need an outline.

To put it another way:The time required to write an outline plus a good document is less than the time required to write the same quality of document without an outline.

Why create an outline

An outline helps you:

– make sure you include everything you want/need

– organize your ideas

– make sure you leave out information or ideas that don’t belong.

How to create an outline

I start by gathering all the ideas, information, facts, quotes, research and whatever else I’ve gathered in my research, then jotting it down (on paper or on screen) in the order I think of it. Someone else a long time ago called this the “scratch outline.” You might call it brainstorming, except that it involves just one person (usually). Write everything down. Some of these ideas are gold, and you might lose them.

Don’t write whole sentences, yet. Just jot or type single words or short phrases. You’re trying to get the ideas down as quickly as possible, while they’re still fresh and hot in your mind.

Once you’ve run out of steam and can’t think of anything else to write down, start looking for links. Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together.” Look for similar ideas and linked facts, and for categories as well as items within those categories. You’ll probably need to make another list after this.

Once everything is grouped, start looking for a logical order to put them in. Here, you have a lot of choice: chronological (for an incident report, for example), or most important to least important (like a newspaper article). Proposals often use the “problem-solution” approach: describe a problem, explain why it’s a problem, the show the solution and its ultimate effects. Advertisements do this, too: “Does the opposite sex run away from your bad breath? You need Moosebreath Away!”

Word processors have outlining tools or views that make creating and rearranging your outline easier.

Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just try different arrangements of ideas and facts. Move them around and imagine the sentences you can craft around the short phrases in your outline. You can fill them in now, if you think of something particularly good.

Don’t be afraid to add new ideas that you realize you had left out, and be even less afraid of taking things out if it seems that they don’t belong.

It really helps if you already have a thesis statement written; however, I sometimes find the main point comes out once I start massaging all the information I have. But a complete thesis statement is a must for a finished outline. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES GO BEYOND WRITING YOUR OUTLINE UNTIL YOU HAVE DECIDED ON YOUR THESIS STATEMENT. Think of it this way: if your outline is your road map, then the thesis statement is your destination. You don’t start a journey without deciding where you’re going, do you? Okay, so do I, sometimes—but when it’s something as important as writing, don’t do it.

Summary

Start with knowing your goal, identifying your reader, and writing your thesis statement (although it may evolve)

  • Make a scratch outline
  • brainstorm
  • generate lots of ideas
  • jot down short phrases or single word

 

Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together”

 

  • group similar ideas

 

  • look for general categories and specific items within categories
  • organize the ideas and information
  • choose from logical, chronological, problem-solution, geographical, etc.

If you’re having trouble deciding on which order to use, go back to the first steps: what are you trying to achieve, who is your audience, and what is the main idea you want to tell them?

Fiction

I firmly believe in using an outline to write fiction. You need to know your characters and setting, and you need to know where your story is going. Otherwise, it doesn’t go anywhere and your beautiful prose does nothing but bore the reader.

Kirsten Lamb agrees with me (although she may not have heard of me). She has devoted several recent blog posts to the idea of structure of novels. “Novels have rules. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.”

You have to know where your plot is going and why your characters are going there. I’ve read a lot of wannabe writers’ blogs, where they say they let the characters lead them. I don’t know if any of them have finished, let alone published a book.

Having an outline for your plot allows you to spot those plot holes, figure out your characters’ motivations and pace your plot developments so they don’t bore the reader, nor leave them breathless.

In future posts, I’m going to put in some exercises on outlining. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has been happy with the result of their document, whatever it may be, that did not have some kind of outline at some point. Remember, even if it was just in your head, it was still an outline.