Lesson 1: Choose a Subject. Stick to It!
My name is Ori Redler and I’m a professional writer.
I am the author of several books and the ghostwriter of quite a few others. I have also translated and edited many books, as well as helped to write dissertations and theses. In addition, I have served as an editor of a magazine for several years.
I have been a journalist, an essayist, an illustrator, a designer, an op-ed writer, a pundit, and probably a few more things that I’ve managed to forget.
In other words, I write for a living, and I write a lot. Millions of words a year.
At that pace, something has to rub off, even on me.
And something did.
In a series of articles, I’ll share a bit of what I know to be good practice when writing. They include important linguistic tools and literary devices, helpful working habits, and some tidbits that will help you on your journey to writing your work.
So let’s get down to business.
The First Rule of Writing: Start with a Question
Everything you write must start with a question. Be it your work on a paper, a thesis, a novel or nonfiction — it must ask a question that you will need to answer.
Why did the Romans conquer the world? Why did the chicken cross the road? When is an amniotic fluid test recommended?
This sounds simple enough, but in reality, it isn’t simple at all. When writing, there are numerous questions which you can ask regarding the subject matter at hand — but only one of them is going to be the right one for your paper.
And you must choose only one question. Some writers think that you can have two or three questions at once, especially if you’re writing a lengthy article or a book-length manuscript. They’re wrong.
Your text, no matter how long or complicated it is, can serve just one master – a single, key question. All of your other subsequent, secondary questions and answers, which will be discussed in your paper, will derive from from your primary question.
The Second Rule of Writing: Make Sure That Your Question is Followed By An Answer
There’s only one answer to your single question.
Yes, there are writers who claim that they’ve started writing without a clear idea about what they wish to do (read: without a single question and a single answer), and that this only developed and crystallized over time. But they are lying!
In fact, they all started with a very clear, single question and a very clear, single answer. They just want you, the reader, to think that they approached their subject matter with an open mind.
At any rate, not choosing a single question and answer at the beginning only means that you’ll need to handle the infighting between the warring questions and answers whilst you are writing the paper. This is the number one cause of books and theses not getting completed.
Starting with a single question and a single answer is the most crucial step in the writing process. Once you have those, your structure will start to emerge, and the various building blocks that you need will magically move into place.
For example, let’s say our question is: why did the Roman Empire fall? We can answer the question in a myriad of different ways, but any one of them will clear the path towards a structure for your paper.
We could offer the answer provided by the 18th-century English historian, Gibbon. He believed that the Roman Empire fell as a consequence of the corrupting influence of Christianity. This answer will develop the structure of the paper, as you explore the decline of the Empire alongside and in conjunction with the emergence of Christianity and its rise to power.
Alternatively, we could model our answer to the question along the lines of the Roman historian, Tacitus. Arguing that the decline of the Roman Empire was the result of the abandonment of the old, “true” Roman way of life, we could structure our essay by exploring the correlation and parallels between the gradual abandonment of old institutions and ways of life, and the fall of the Roman Empire. .
Third Rule: Seek Clarity
It’s not as easy as it sounds. When you need to write a paper (or a thesis, or a book) it is not very easy to come up with a single question and a single answer. You usually have more than one question that you wish to pose, and you probably want to tackle it by giving a fair share of multiple answers. However, you must fight this urge. It’s destructive…
In order to write clearly, try the following exercise:
1. Take a piece of paper. Try to write down your single question, and then write down your single answer.
2. How many words did that take? If you needed more than 15 words or so to ask, or answer, your question, it probably means that you do not have a single question nor a single answer.
3. Try again, simplifying things until you have a question in a short, lucid format, such as “Why did the Roman Empire fall?”. Do the same to create a clear, simple answer – for example, “because the barbarians were at the gates”.
If you did not cheat, your simple question and answer just brought you a huge step forward. Now, you’ll be able to construct the rest of your work a lot more easily.
Fourth Rule: Building a Structure Tree
In order to demonstrate how to build a structure tree, let us take the example we’ve used before — why the Roman Empire fell — and give it a simple answer: because of the undermining of old traditions.
We can now “open up” the structure by means of asking some additional, simple questions:
Main Question: Why did the Roman Empire fall?
Main Answer: Because the Celts undermined the old traditions (it’s a silly answer, I know).
Additional Question: What were the old traditions?
Additional Answer: Description of the traditions, including their use and application in society.
Additional Question: What caused the traditions to appear and evolve?
Additional Answer: Description of the roots and causes of the traditions in the old Roman way of life.
Additional Question (bringing the paper back to the main question and answer): What caused the traditions to wane and disappear?
Additional Answer: This reason, this other reason, the third reason, and the Celts— go into detail for each of the possible options.
As you can see, asking a simple question and giving it a simple answer helps us to develop (or “open up”) the structure easily. This structure tree provide us with a simple, section-by-section layout for our paper:
Section A: Description of the Fall of the Roman Empire, stressing how old traditions were gradually forgotten
Section B: The history and development of the old traditions
Section C: How the traditions helped to build the empire
Section D: When, and how, the traditions began to wane
Section E-F-G. Why the traditions started to wane. Emphasising, in particular, the significance of the actions of the Celts
Section H-I-J. Pointing to parallels: The influence of the Celts is found to constantly correlate, not only with the demise of old traditions, but also with the demise of the Roman Empire
This emphasis on a simple question and answer may sound oversimplistic. But it is not. I’ve worked with dozens of writers — writing anything from a novel to a thesis — who have all encountered problems completing or wrapping up their manuscript.
Invariably, their problem with creating an ending was always due to starting out on the wrong foot.
Some of them were waddling through the manuscript, filling it with unnecessary details because they had no clear idea what question they were actually trying to ask. Others, on the other hand, were trying to answer several questions at once, which meant that the paper lacked direction and clarity.
A Few Pointers
Now that you’re convinced I’m right, a few pointers regarding the right way to ask questions and answer them:
• Always frame your question clearly. Don’t use “may” or “probably” or “would it be possible that… .” Be unambiguous and precise. You can complicate things later on.
• Never ask a binary question. A yes-no question is not a particularly constructive one. Instead of “Do seat belts prevent fatalities during road accidents?” ask “How many lives have been saved by seat belts?” This provides room for more interesting, developed answers.
• An interesting question and answer often tend to follow this rather simple but appealing structure: most people, or most scholars, believe A. In fact, however, the answer is B.
• Keep the ‘ultimate’ question and answer in your back pocket. The “real,” more useful and constructive question is something which can only be asked once more information, and a fuller analysis of some of the content discussed in the essay, has already been explored. That’s a bit cryptic, but I will show you how it all makes sense in the next article, so not to worry!
• Always try to personalize things. Humanize – try to find an actual person that will serve as your focal point. If your question and answer is “Why did the Roman Empire fall? Because the Celts undermined the old traditions,” try and find some information about an actual Celtic person, whose story can make your answer both more convincing and interesting. Phrase it like this: “How did Bobo (a key Celt) bring down the Roman Empire?”
• If you’re writing fiction, most of the rules above still apply to you. It is not enough to simply proclaim that your movie will show that “Life Stinks”. That’s not particularly interesting, and doesn’t provide you with a structure. Instead, you need to ask yourself the question – what is it exactly that makes life stink? This will give you opportunities to develop your main point more widely.
So, that’s it!
Next article, I’ll overcome all shame and will reveal how to cheat…I mean conduct stellar research for an A+ paper.