Much of the advice about writing and productivity seems to assume that our brains work in 1-2-3 order. Many people’s brains do. If they watch StarTrek, Mr. Spock is their favorite character. If they like to cook, their spice cupboards are alphabetized. When they give directions, they start with the first step and proceed to the end in perfect sequential order.
These logical folk will tell you that the way to write is to begin with a plan and follow the plan. That’s excellent advice—for them.
People who think like Dr. McCoy need a different approach. As an exasperated Spock frequently observes, McCoy is not a logical thinker. However, his patients benefit from the doctor’s intuitive leaps into unknown territory. When an alien Horta becomes his patient, McCoy famously complains that he doesn’t know how to treat a silicone-based life form: “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer.” Yet a bricklayer of sorts is exactly what he needs to be. McCoy’s brain agilely associates bricklayers, trowels, mortar, and medicine to invent a new treatment that saves the Horta.
Intuitive thinkers advise writers to make mind maps, freewrite, or find other ways to capture random associations.
Which approach is better? That depends on how your brain works. Writing researchers have found that making an outline can help some writers put ideas into words more easily. Outlines can also improve the depth and organization of the final draft. However, outlines can be a waste of time for writers who develop ideas in their heads. And some writers may use both types of logic, first jotting down random associations and then organizing them into an outline.
As one of my students put it, “The best way to plan is to do what your brain wants to do naturally.”
What kind of thinker are you? Take a quick self-scoring quiz to find out at /quizzes/are-you-a-web-or-step-thinker/
The results are nonscientific, but you’ll get an idea of which type of thinking—logical or intuitive—will work best for you when you plan your writing.
McCoy’s complaint, “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer,” is from The Devil in the Dark (1967).
For examples of mind maps, see the Gallery on Tony Buzan’s site: http://www.thinkbuzan.com/us/support/mindmapgallery
For a demonstration of mind mapping and an explanation of associational logic, see Tony Buzan’s 6-minute video, Maximize the Power of Your Brain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlabrWv25qQ
Freewriting is a technique that gets thoughts flowing freely. Writers decide how long to write (usually 5 to 15 minutes) and then write continuously without stopping to revise or make corrections. The key is to write without stopping, even if the only thought that comes to mind is I can’t think of what to write next, I can’t think of what to write next…. Peter Elbow developed the technique; Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg are among its advocates.
Writing researchers who have studied the effectiveness of outlining include R Kellogg (2008), “Training Writing Skills: A Cognitive Development Perspective, Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1-26, and Torrance, Thomas, and Robinson (2000), “Individual Differences in Undergraduate Essay-Writing Strategies: A Longitudinal Study,” Higher Education, 39:2, 181-200, DOI: 10.1023/A:1003990432398.