- What writing is worth our while?
- Drafting a briefing based on your fieldwork
- Framing your subject
- Writing in block
- Giving a title
- Writing rituals
- Analytic writing
- The opinion piece
- Beat the editor at his game
- Illustration credits
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All these items are drawn from Synaps’ mentoring platform on management and methodology. Synaps doesn’t aim solely at incubating ideas: it ambitions to help build a brain trust of individuals who think creatively about the challenges we all face. This is why we invest heavily in human capital, through intensive mentoring and, we hope, effective management. This platform captures, unpacks and feeds back into that effort. For updates (typically less than once a month), sign up here.
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WRITING IS A NERVE-WRACKING and enthralling endeavor. We put a great deal of ourselves into it. Sometimes we torture ourselves, or hope to liberate and comfort ourselves. But what about those whom we expect to read our writing? Writing is both an extremely personal experience and one that connects us to untold others. That connection is what it is really about. Indeed, from the reader’s perspective, we are too often frustrated by the author’s lack of consideration: the text may be too long, obscure, poorly sourced, too dry, disjointed, narcissistic and so on. So what makes a text worthwhile? Rest assured: it has more to do with the author’s intent than with his actual talent.
Here are some good questions to ask oneself before writing:
- What is new about what I am about to write? What has already been written about this? What is the novel, real-life experience I can share through this piece?
- Why is the topic I am touching upon important, meaningful to others? Why should they take the time to delve deeper into this?
- Who exactly I am writing for, other than myself? Who do I want to address, inform, provoke even?
- Finally, what impact am I aiming to have on my audience? Rather than attempt to impress them, what impression would I like to leave on them? In other words, what effect do I want to produce that is not related to me, but to the topic itself?
High-performing companies are said to be successful because they answer the questions “why are we doing what we do?,” “how do we do it?,” and “what are we doing?” in that order. Others do the reverse: they start by describing their product and their processes, before even starting to explain why it should matter to anyone. Powerful writing should likewise flow from that sense of purpose, connecting one’s desire to write to the audience’s desire to read. The “why” is the necessary starting point. Then writing consists in finding “how” to impact the audience accordingly. “What” refers only to the material that is being used to produce that effect – the framing, the research, the anecdotes, the characters, the references, the choice of words, and even the actual platform for publication.
Indeed, an effective “reading experience” depends on the reader’s ability to project into the text, to connect with it emotionally, to activate his imagination and capacity for empathy, and therefore to become part of it. That encounter is where the text takes life. As a result, the author’s “ego” must make space for the reader’s “ego.” One can write in the first person, tell stories about oneself, but the reader must be able to take over, engage his/her own senses, and become active in the narration.
This is important because we live in a textual environment where we are constantly assaulted by other people’s egos, which is especially true of social media, but not only. Nonetheless, the sheer density of the textual environment we live in suggests a widespread quest for content. The public seeks such content for a variety of reasons: to trigger, reinforce and stabilize existing emotions; for genuine light-entertainment; to be updated and stay on top of the news; or to edify oneself through publications that help to “make sense” of the world.
This last item is what concerns us. So how do we make sense? Telling a story or publishing information in an organized and analytical way is not quite enough. “Making sense” is a matter of speaking to the reader’s senses, of giving him or her a feel for what you describe, of conveying your own real-life experience in ways that makes it shareable as part of the reading experience mentioned above. Again, the reader shouldn’t be bumping constantly into you: he or she must be contemplating the scenery, engaging the characters, suggesting possibilities that weren’t originally planned. You may be there too, but as a self-effacing guide, not a diva.
Typically, we don’t write for one person though. We combine several audiences – colleagues who review, edit and hopefully improve our work, inquisitive family members and friends, people in the field to whom we are accountable, readers in policy-circles, students in international affairs, and so on. That takes us back to the kernel of universality that is needed for a substantive text to find and ideally fire up its audience. It must be deep enough for subject-matter experts to learn; explicit enough for novices to follow; both accurate and humane enough for the concerned to embrace rather than reject it. But those are the core components of a good text anyway – so writing for various publics is less of a constraint than a reminder to strike the right balance.
YOUR NOTES taken in the field are ultimately designed to inspire, structure and support work that goes down on paper. You must go through the process of translating a mass of oral conversations, visual and other observations, and abstract thoughts into a readable text. That is one of the most challenging aspects of our work.
But fear not. It can be done in relatively straightforward ways. The harder it seems, the easier it will become by adopting the following step-by-step methodology. It’s time consuming, but infinitely less so than staring at notes, prevaricating, writing and tossing bits of text, seeking refuge in Facebook and finally developing writer’s block.
A first step is to collect all relevant material in one place. For example, useful interview transcripts can be copied into one folder, along with personal thoughts, press clippings, academic articles and the like. Make sure they are titled (even tagged) in ways that make them possible to navigate at a glance. Physical, analog material such as books, pamphlets or handwritten notes should also be consolidated in one place.
Second, go through that material once more, all together – once is enough. Take notes on what it evokes as you do. See what connections your brain makes and keep track of them. Also discuss that raw material with others, and be sure to write down any outcomes. Don’t try to memorize it. Don’t sit and stare either, hoping the material will somehow start moving around and organize itself.
On the contrary, you need to assimilate it, to process it, to “digest” it. Digestion entails breaking things up into their constituent components, sifting some out, and then reassembling the remainder into something else. Much is lost and forgotten. But the “nutrients” are saved. In this case, the nutrients are the bits and pieces of observations that you have been using to develop fragments of analysis, which in turn are the building blocks of your narration. In other words, let the material sink in.
The third stage consists in deciding how you are going to reorganize the material. This “order” is, in practice, an outline. Bear in mind that there usually are numerous possibilities, several of which may work. It’s a matter of trying them out – like a child would toy with putting blue squares with red squares, or orange rectangles with similarly-colored shapes.
In your written products, the “organizing” factors can be brought down to simple questions: Why is my research important to my target audience? How best can I convey my most relevant findings, given the audience’s starting point? What will the audience need, in terms of background, illustrations, nuance and supporting evidence, to follow my argument and be convinced by it? Where exactly do I want to take and leave them?
Answering these questions will help you understand the outline as an itinerary. You start where your audience is. And, indeed, they haven’t done your fieldwork. You end where you are, having done all that work yourself. First you need to grab your audience, by showing them why the journey they are about to set upon is meaningful to them – that’s an introduction. Then you walk them through your analysis, step by step. In a conclusion, you explain why this is the logical end of the trip.
An outline must always be discussed with others. A good outline gives your manager, your colleague or anyone else a good idea of where you intend to go, and why that path is a good one. It is like a map: you’re not on the scenic route yet, but you can see that the road doesn’t fall off a cliff, and actually takes you from A to B.
Once you are comfortable with your outline, the fourth stage is not about drafting, but redistributing your material into its various sections. Each is a box that will contain the fragments of analysis and the bits and pieces of observations mentioned above. Different parts of the same interview can land into any number of different boxes. Now you are physically gathering your material as if it was blue squares or orange triangles.
The fifth and last step consists in drafting. Again, this has little to do with inspiration. Many writers have rituals that help, but the key is putting in the hours. Writing takes time. It’s never quite as good as we’d like. So it takes even more time to review, improve and so on. That said, don’t even try to write 12 hours in a row. A reasonably good text will come, say, two hours at a time, interspaced with real breaks.
Focus for that long and keep moving: unless you’re an experienced and confident writer, never look back on what you wrote the same day. Put differently, detach the writing process from the re-reading / editing / panicking process, which need their own, very separate moments.
It is important to note that the process of analysis and writing will vary between different sorts of outputs. A memo or briefing is not great literature—the point is being systematic, not stylish. Each subsection in your outline must contain the same core elements, each of which is critical to your audience’s ability to follow: 1) The analytical argument you are making, and which justifies this subsection. 2) The background that is needed to understand the argument. 3) The color that is required to “experience” it. And 4) the necessary nuance and supporting hard evidence that will make it compelling.
Write in small paragraphs and tick all the above boxes. Constantly ask yourself: Why is this important? What is missing? And where do I go from here? Once you have answered these questions in your text, you can move on to the next subsection. And from subsection to subsection, soon you will have your brief or your memo!
ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT TASKS involved in turning extensive research into a digestible product is framing the topic. Sound fieldwork invariably reveals and unravels the complexity of the issue we are working on, to the point where bringing it down to something simple is perplexing. “What’s the angle?” journalists would say. An end-user of our work will generally ask, implicitly, the same question; indeed, it must be clear from the out-set what this is about.
So let’s be candid: Framing is an artificial, arbitrary set-up. The topic doesn’t frame itself. We make opportunistic decisions, depending on what is at stake, on how to apprehend, capture, seize it.
The nature of certain organizations makes framing self-evident. Think tanks, which purport to shape policy-making, will inevitably lay out a set of prescriptions on an issue being debated, or worthy of discussion. NGOs engaged in advocacy and activism will publish material that fits their mandate. Media will cast their output based on its newsworthiness or on its emotional value.
In academia, you are expected to label your writing in relation to existing theoretical frameworks. You may simply apply one of these to a particular object; or contest its foundations with new material putting its limits on display; or build on it and add some trappings; or develop a novel model of your own, filling an identifiable gap in said literature. Framing can easily turn into a formalistic and mundane exercise: many PhDs, for instance, rely heavily on a theoretical lens for lack of sufficient fieldwork, to find safety and comfort in a compelling intellectual edifice, and to comply with the field’s stringent canons, even when these seem detached from realities on the ground.
The academic toolbox is potent nonetheless, and social sciences have produced analytical devices we would be remiss to ignore. Some concepts, like the “self-fulfilling prophecy,” have made it into conventional wisdom. Others we must learn about, and learn to use, through our readings. The trick is in finding the right instrument rather than being blown away by a beautiful one: it doesn’t matter how great a hammer is, if we just want to drill a hole.
You can also frame your topic with a mix of all the above: an article such as “The reinvention of Jihadism in the Middle-East” brings a semi-academic approach to a newsworthy topic that stirs our emotions and is policy-relevant—and it consequently reached a broad, varied public. Its first paragraph stakes out a clear thesis, according to which our response to radicalization doesn’t contain but exacerbates its drivers. Having established its raison d’etre, the piece can then go on to explain that what has created this self-reinforcing loop is the changing nature of the Jihadist movement itself.
Effective framing of meaningful analysis is, naturally, a case-by-case determination. Very often, the more obvious it is to you, the less interesting it will be to the reader. What is truly new, important and relatable can also be strangely elusive. So you’ve done your homework: you know your topic better than anyone, or at least you should. Now, how to share a sophisticated, detailed understanding without boring your audience to death?
The article “The Syrian heartbreak” may offer a clue toward solving this riddle. Its body is a long dissection of the early dynamics of the Syrian conflict, informed by fieldwork introducing analytical views. Finding the entry-point to this epic, which ambitioned not to merely describe the crisis, but to make the reader experience its tragic depth, proved eminently difficult. Ultimately, a scene witnessed at the border, where Syrian families were readying to leave everything behind, gave this article not just its title, but its introduction, its conclusion, its humanity and its general drive, which centered on pride. Framing the article around a specific Syrian dignity forsaken in this conflict could ground the narrative in something palpable.
Such an epiphany tends to come from our lived engagement with the topic at hand. In particular, the reactions of people we talk to about it, in a meeting, a conference or casually, will help find us the right way of connecting with our future audience.
But rather than seek some mystical bonding with a hoped-for public, it is good to remember that a framework must work, above all. It should fulfil our purpose, as we strive to achieve a certain result: convince an audience, convey a position, explain an issue, etc. The framework is what helps us produce that effect. Otherwise, all we’ve got is scattered bit and pieces of information and ideas.
In a sense, it is similar to architecture, whose volumes, perspectives, sequencing and distribution are always designed to produce an effect. Without architecture, we’ve got bricks and mortar, which trigger no thought or emotion. Assembled in a certain way, they suddenly acquire a power to do so.
To take this metaphor further, your framework is very much like a building—a museum, say. It has an entrance and an exit, and a number of rooms you walk your audience through. Your intent, as a guide, is first to give your visitors the appropriate welcome: It should both put them at ease and pull them in. Then you want to share with them everything that seems important to you, while striking the right balance. You’ll focus on certain displays, “storify” them by elaborating on their context, and taking care of transitions. The narrative you develop along this itinerary ultimately leaves your visitors transformed and hopefully transfixed, at which stage, in your conclusion, you can boot them out the door.
In truth, at lot of the work we do, as researchers, is like collecting artefacts for a museum: We’ll only be sure of our fieldwork by having too much of it stashed away, in the drawers and storerooms. We then choose what to show, how and why. As always, it is important to start with the “why,” which is your framing, from which derives the framework per se. Once you know why you are setting upon this guided tour, you can work things backwards to determine where to go (in other words, your outline) and what exactly you want to expose.
THE MAJORITY OF QUERIES made by an editor working on the first draft of a text—assuming the fieldwork, the overall analysis and the structure have already been discussed—relate to the same cluster of issues: what point is the author making, exactly? How does it connect to the previous point? Is it explained clearly enough? Is it corroborated with sufficient evidence? Is the evidence adequately sourced? Is the argument illustrated with the kind of “color” needed to make it tangible to the reader? And, finally, has any necessary nuance or counterpoint been overlooked?
In most paragraphs, the editor will end up putting a selection of such questions to the author, turning the draft into a dispiriting document savaged with track-changes. A long process of addressing such problems ensues, before a second and more rewarding layer of edits—focusing on honing the arguments, the style, the flow—becomes possible. Improving one’s writing entails cutting out the most painful elements of the first stage, by reducing the need for such queries to the strict minimum.
The way to do that is to write in blocks. It is a somewhat artificial but highly efficient exercise, which consists in building paragraphs that strenuously check all the above boxes. Each paragraph will be built around one argument (i.e. a conceptual, analytical proposition), along with its supporting facts, references, examples, quotes and discussion of counterarguments. To ensure it goes straight to the point, it must also be short—not longer than ten lines in a default A4 layout. Lastly, it must be explicitly associated with the previous block, within a logical sequence that the reader shouldn’t have to second-guess.
Each paragraph, in other words, states its purpose upfront and comes full circle, covering every aspect of the proposition it starts with. Naturally, your analysis must be broken down into sufficiently small parts for each one to be digestible in a few sentences. If it takes more than ten lines to expound an idea, that means that you have bundled several together; you must unpack and deal with these in separate paragraphs.
Not all points you want to make lend themselves to the same structure: in some cases, you’ll list several references. In others, you’ll dwell mostly on one practical example drawn from your fieldwork; a quote accompanied by your commentary may suffice to capture a complex idea through the insight of someone credible. Regardless of their distinctive fabric, all paragraphs should end with the reader having understood and accepted the logic of your argument. (And this paragraph can serve as an example.)
Another way of putting it is to picture sentences as arrows pointing right. Every sentence announces the following one, by adding just one element to the previous sentence and suggesting what may logically come next. That may be proof, nuance and so on. The paragraph ends when there isn’t much more to say, which in itself hints at a new paragraph kicking off with the next, related idea. (And here again, these last few lines function, precisely, in this way.)
Poorly written or abrupt phrases will disrupt this flow, confusing the reader by pointing in odd directions. A statement can be parachuted into a text, like an arrow falling out of the sky. A sentence may be darting off, saying something too fast or in terms too abstract for the reader to keep up. Some feel more like jumping off a cliff, as they lead into nothingness. Allusive propositions, which omit to provide the background needed to grasp them, tend to point rearward, prompting us to wonder what we may have missed in previous sections. Any sense of confusion creates an impulse to go back to where we weren’t yet perplexed (or just give up).
Length matters for sentences as it does for paragraphs. If a phrase says one thing and one only, and does so clearly, there really is no reason for it to go on and on. Replace a comma with a full stop wherever possible. With such discipline, each sentence becomes a building block for paragraphs, which in turn are building blocks for the text as a whole. As writers improve in their ability to produce their own clear, logically sequenced and streamlined arguments, the relationship between writer and editor moves toward a dynamic of construction rather than deconstruction, and these newfound allies may themselves form a bloc.
A TEXT WITHOUT A TITLE is like a building without a door. To enter it, you walk around, you break in through the window, and you definitely don’t feel welcome. Reading, let alone editing, such a text feels like trespassing on the author’s intimacy: if he/she didn’t put a title, it’s presumably because it’s still too personal, tentative and shapeless to be shared.
At a glance, it is mysterious that titling should be as difficult as it is. Most of us will string together hundreds or thousands of words in the body of a document, and then fumble to find a handful that adequately introduce it to the rest of the world. If writing well is a relatively rare skill, conjuring good titles is scarcer still.
The explanation is likely found in the difficulty of writing in the first place. Short pieces that go straight to the point are notoriously more challenging than long rambling ones; introductions are laborious; first paragraphs are torture; no wonder, then, that we struggle to coin the essence of a publication in less than a line. All the reservations, insecurities and inhibitions we endure as we write tend to connive in blotting out the title, left blank as an implicit question mark: Doesn’t my writing speak better for itself than a shoddy label? What is this text, all told, truly about? And it is worth anything at all?
Although great titles have an enchanted aura to them, they conceal, like other forms of magic, a few rudimentary tricks. The basics are as follows:
- A text without a title is anathema, full stop. Effective titling, therefore, is of paramount importance, and will only come with hard work. Put on a top hat and white gloves if it helps, but start practicing.
- The very same text can bear an infinity of headings. Relax and use a commonplace, descriptive place-holder until you strike the lucky number.
- If the epiphany continues to elude you, fall back on an inductive, deductive process: list the themes, images, and concepts that define your piece, and play with related words. The process of eliminating whatever clearly doesn’t work will leave you with a few options that do.
- As is so often the next step, pull other people in. Some have a knack for nailing what exactly we wrote without even reading it.
- There can and should be no consensus. Go for what you like best, or what you feel most comfortable with.
- Failure is an option. Sometimes you must suck it up and get used to a title, simply because nothing better came up. Some topics or formats just don’t lend themselves to beautiful, spirited titles. So be it.
Of course, your title will ideally be short, expressive and titillating. It doesn’t necessarily say explicitly what is in the text, but it must give the reader a compelling reason to dive in. This obviously is a case-by-case determination. Some academic publications will truly require a hefty three-liner that relegate them to a small corner of science where only colleagues will venture. Punditry sells best when branded as taking a recognizable angle within an ongoing debate. For memos and briefings, descriptive titles are the safest and most effective way to go.
Other genres offer immense possibilities, especially when the title aims mostly to intrigue. It can be formulated as a question, or as an assertion that begs for backing. It can evoke a story about to be told, or draw on the many tales that make up our cultural rearing, and which are often encapsulated in an evocative metaphor. These can be diverted and distorted in any number of ways. And, of course, the title can spell out a core truth that connects with a particular emotional backdrop. To take an example from Synaps, “The Syrian trauma” was one of those that needed not a word of explanation, and would have lost more than it gained from a subtitle.
The caption you give to your text will define its purpose, literally or metaphysically. It’s that handful of words that brings a truckload of them into being.
THE ONE THING TO KNOW about writing is that, as a rule, it has nothing in common with sitting at a keyboard feeling inspired. As a cultural construct, writing is strangely associated with pure genius, if not the touch of God—perfect words flowing through an author page after page, as would a prophetic revelation. Writing in fact, of all the arts, is more akin to ballet, whereby grace is a consequence of its opposite: endless repetition, the acquisition of techniques, constant coaching and correction, and endurance in the face of pain. Writing is about routine, and will typically be anything but a thrill. If practice doesn’t make perfect, it will, however, make publishable material.
Even brilliant writers use rituals to settle into their writing routine. They do so not so much because they are dazzling creative freaks, but because, for them also, it’s often hard. Such rituals are often complicated and even eccentric; by looking into the lives of novelists you will find many entertaining examples.
Tackling the psychological hindrances to writing starts with demystifying the process. First of all, although writing definitely is a solitary act, a good text is almost always a collective product. Drafting is bracketed by teamwork upstream (fieldwork, framing, outlining) and downstream (editing, rewriting, proofing). In that sense, it’s important to recognize that, while you do have your bit to contribute to the group effort, you’re not alone.
Many writers fail to meet their ambitions precisely for that reason. If you feel isolated as you embark on a writing project, the thing to do is seek help, immediately. Knowing that someone out there will improve your text is key to not rereading yourself to see if you’ve achieved brilliance – a compulsive behavior that will undermine even the best writers.
Second, writing is slow-going. That’s a fact of life. A quick writer can clock 5 000 words in a day and require moderate editing; a beginner may reach 1 000 or fewer, which he or she will end up rewriting anyway. Estimate how long a draft will take to write and then multiply that timeframe by two, if you’re an experienced author, and by three or four, if not. Old-timers may like to dither and write in a burst to a tight deadline, but that can be disastrous for the less veteran. Quite simply, the less assured and practiced you are, the less productive you will be under pressure, so give yourself a break and start early.
Third, you must both clear the space and fill the void. Good writing almost never occurs in the midst of other things, and there is no shortage of distractions and disruptions. You therefore must set aside writing slots—typically in the morning—whereby you will allow nothing to intrude. Phone calls, emails and social media, be gone! Wither secondary chores! The plague on other priorities! Clearing your desktop is another way, both literal and metaphorical, to make space for writing.
You then have a problem if you’re gazing into emptiness: you’re primed to write but aren’t quite sure what you’re going to write about, where to start, and where you’re ultimately going. It’s a recipe for writer’s block. The blank screen is particularly mesmerizing if you feel void yourself. That’s why it’s advisable to set a plan and stick to it: you have an outline; draft a section, or subsection, or whatever number of paragraphs is doable in a day. If you’re prone to panic, set your goals the day before, based on how much you achieved on that day, whether it was a good or a bad one. Once that goal is set, force yourself to meet it; even if the product isn’t a masterpiece, that process will have moved you forward. You may also quickly spell out the micro-outline that will guide you when you wake up, and sleep all the better for it.
Fourth and last, writing is punishing enough as it is, so treat yourself. Once you’ve done what you could do in a set number of hours, go to the gym, eat chocolate, watch a film, hang out with friends—whatever pat on the back works for you. The real rewards of writing are delayed until publication. But you’ll be forgiven for a little down payment.
IN AN ERA saturated with textual content claiming to make sense of the world’s complexity, we must face the reality: an enormous amount of wealth pours into writing that is very hard to read. A great deal of mainstream analysis is short but shallow, while much more is so long and meandering as to ultimately bury its own substance. High quality intellectual output is all too often wasted on its potential public not because it is too sophisticated or poorly written, but simply for lack of structure. Sound research, powerful ideas and a fluid style will inevitably invite a public snub (or brutal rewriting) if the text is not organized to engage its audience.
Structure is as critical to effective delivery as it is elusive. The concept refers to the layout of the various components of a text. It goes beyond the notion of outline: a document may have subtitles and yet be devoid of structure, and vice versa. Structure defines a coherent, well-articulated argument very much like a skeleton determines a body, making it so much more than a pile of body parts. It flows from two processes: the selection, among all the elements that could possibly go into a text, of those that are most relevant to the effect an author wants to produce on his or her readership; and the arrangement of these components to maximize the desired effect. It is an equivalent of a painting’s composition.
One reason why the concept evades many authors of analytic prose is that there is no straightforward, one-size-fits-all formula. Structure is a case-by-case, iterative determination that typically occurs late in the process, and usually involves significant help. In fact, the reasons for a particular structure often become clear only in hindsight, once the text exists and produces the effects we were intuiting. Good, analytic editors impulsively move things around, usually without intellectualizing, systematizing and explaining the process. Here is a stab at doing so.
Finding the right fit
A crucial part of drafting, editing and rewriting is reversing the original logic of the research that produced the analysis. Indeed, a researcher will pursue a what-how-why reasoning, starting off with a general topic (what), deciphering its internal mechanisms (how), and drawing conclusions on the underlying meaning (why). A well-structured piece will do the opposite: first it puts up its raison d’etre, stressing the importance of the subject-matter (why); then it delves into a breakdown of arguments reconstructing a complete analysis (how); finally, it wraps up by revealing what the topic was fundamentally about (what). No wonder authors often feel that their work, when thoroughly edited, was somewhat turned on its head.
Thinking through the stuff of a publication helps sketch the structure early on in the process. In analytic writing, the string of sentences and paragraphs is a sequencing of essential facts (indispensable for readers to grasp the topic’s outlines), experiences by proxy (through which the author makes his audience share in what he or she observed firsthand) and conceptual arguments (imperative to making sense of it all). A text that is easy to edit contains such components in the right amount, balance and order; a text that is delightful to read is rich in the above, while staying simple in style and structure.
To sketch a piece’s structure, you may need to lay out, on a wall or in a spreadsheet, all items relevant to the categories spelled out above: facts, themselves broken down into hard data sets, chronological series, biographies, maps and so on; narratives, distributed in subcategories such as citations, the analyses of others, or even rumors; observations, telling scenes and revealing anecdotes; arguments, namely your own analysis about how things work, what is important and why; and, finally, the fundamental verities that seem to lie at the backdrop, making the whole research process worthwhile.
From there, you must choose among the many, creative options for organizing your writing, according to what suits best your particular material and goals. Synaps publications, for instance, display a variety of structures: an emotional crescendo, as What the war on terror looks like takes you down the hellhole of Northern Iraq; The Syrian trauma’s zoom-out from individual experience to global consequences; layered complexity ending in a simple, clear-cut, ominous outcome, in Abracada… broke; or The cocoon’s life cycle. A faithful structure heeds the nature of the topic.
For novelists or journalists invested in nonfiction storytelling, thinking through a text’s structure before drafting it is almost second nature. What makes it more elusive to analytic writers is that the notion simply isn’t taught. “Analytic writing” goes, furthermore, without curricula, self-help books and prizes—without a recognizable name, even. As such, the state of the art is predictably suboptimal.
Academic and technocratic authors tend to ignore the issue of structure entirely, as a distraction, if not a hazardous flirt with unscientific writing. They prefer a strict, conventional outline distributing information and analysis into topical sections, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. An establishment like the French Institute for Political Studies teaches generations of intellectuals to fit their thinking, uncritically, into a two section/two subsection framework, for reasons everyone seems to take for granted. Western academia now banishes any thesis that fails to start with a mind-numbing literature review, as if related references could not possibly demonstrate their relevance in the body of analysis itself. By contrast, the masterpieces that founded most scientific disciplines were beautifully written; in fact, they would not have gained prominence in the first place were it not for their narrative—alongside their didactic—value.
The imperative of narration
Whether we like it or not, narration sits at the heart of compelling analytic writing. This is hardly surprising, given that narration is integral to much of what we do. Indeed, it boils down to a familiar sequence that involves an opening, a succession of developments creating an emotional buildup and sense of anticipation, and a recognizable ending bringing the process to a close. This basic framework applies to more aspects of our experience than we tend to assume: novels and movies of course, but also musical performances and spectator sports, flirting, and most other things from the rise and fall of empires to the progression of occurrences that we would qualify as “a great meal” or “a good day.” Life itself, in a sense, follows the same arc; this may explain why we are so sensitive to it, and therefore why it weaves itself into so many facets of our daily routines.
Fictional and nonfictional storytelling, which for generations have refined and theorized the art of narration, contain important lessons for analytic writing. As Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, aptly points out, their structure typically revolves around the following sequence: exposition (of the essential traits of a central character); complication (meaning the early development that sets off a series of captivating events); escalating action (and the emotional ups and downs that flow from it); climax (the dramatic outcome of that build up); and resolution (which may be a fatal denouement, a happy ending, or simply an enriched form of appeasement). This basic construct underpins, in more or less subtle ways, virtually all stories we know.
Analytic writing follows a remarkably similar progression, although its components differ from storytelling per se. Character is, to a large extent, replaced by topic—the issue that will gradually gain in depth as you reveal its many, often contradictory facets. Complication can come in the form of what academics describe as a “research question,” or any other device that gives the topic the twist that reveals its interest and its complexity. Analysis, rather than action, drives the reading experience, and to propel the reader it must be just as dynamic. The climax marks the highpoint in your string of arguments—the moment when, having brought your readers to understand the various components of your exploration, you nail in your “thesis”—the definite take you were articulating, bit by bit, all along. Resolution combines a sense of completion and a new opening, onto some broader truth nested in a telling anecdote or an abstract, but evocative, conclusion.
Another way of putting it involves the “itinerary metaphor” used elsewhere on this platform: the author, very much like a guide on a tour, will pick his or her readers up wherever they happen to be, and take them step by step to where he or she wants to leave them, while bringing to life interesting sights, facts, and artefacts along the way. The tour has a general theme, which the guide will start by making accessible and intriguing. He or she will then go through a series of explanations and illustrations, crafted to retain the audience’s attention. The visit will culminate shortly before parting ways. The circuit is a narrative journey that leads the public, in principle at least, down the most efficient path from introduction to deeper understanding.
Three golden rules
From the public’s perspective—to which the wise author will defer—even analytic writing will be gripping if it abides by three, golden rules: shape, rhythm, resonance.
The shape is the “why” of your analysis: although any topic is infinite by nature, your purpose is to shed light on one, particularly significant corner of it. Even this doesn’t happen all at once: your argument will only gradually take shape. Meanwhile, the reader formulates expectations and asks him or herself, consciously or not, the right questions: why does this concern me? Where are the real problems? How do things work? Where does all this lead? And what can I make of this, myself? The facets of your analysis form an image in the reader’s brain, increasingly sophisticated, illuminating, complete. Because it promises a climax through its own completion, analysis creates suspense and powers the narration. Indeed, wrapping our minds around a complex subject procures immense satisfaction. A reader left on a full, vivid, clear and compelling picture will feel privileged with a rare, fulfilling reading experience.
The difficulty in defining the shape of your analysis lies in what you leave out. A statue that retains all the stone it could potentially use is a rock. Analytic writing that strives to say everything the author knows about a topic is a bad encyclopedia. A text, to be respectful of its readership, must both meticulously include everything the audience needs to follow the progression and delete anything superfluous, ruthlessly.
Rhythm keeps up the momentum throughout the reading experience, and equates with the “how” mentioned above. Analytic arguments give the beat, but such drumming is interspaced with what gives the text some melody: supporting facts and evidence, citations (characters even, if need be), metaphors, descriptive scenes, and logical transitions. These notes may be composed in an oft-repeated, simple arrangement, such as argument-proof-nuance-transition. Or they may alternate between tangible anecdotes and conceptual thinking, running up and down the spectrum of human emotions and intellectual abstraction.
Resonance is, almost by definition, what is least visible and most powerful within a text. The text’s ability to echo within its readership depends on a touch of universal—the “what”—that is best written between the lines. In the Synaps model, bringing a grassroots perspective to the surface is an important element of resonance; not unlike fiction or narrative nonfiction, it gives the reader the opportunity to experience a problem in vibrant, relatable terms. Our researchers’ extensive, immersive fieldwork also transpires through their writing; although we prefer third person and comply with the relatively disembodied style relevant to analytic writing, the goal is to imbue that writing with vital forms of human empathy and civic engagement. In more literary prose, this is called “voice”—without which a dry document will struggle to achieve connection.
Resonance also pulses from another source, which is the underlying theme behind the overall argument. Analytic writing, like storytelling, taps into universal leitmotivs, both profound and banal. Spellbinding reads have a knack for circling back to eternal truths: a paper on youth cooptation within Hizbollah highlights mechanisms applicable to most organizations, from sects to trade unions; Lebanon’s economic antics tell a tale of elite predation that has spared no part of the globe; and unpacking the traumatic effect of war on Syrians sheds unexpected light on a broadly-felt, intense and growing sense of confusion worldwide. If analytic writing is indeed to help us navigate an era of change, it must ambition to pose, and hopefully answer, essential questions.
As always, practice makes perfect, through grueling back and forth with capable editors. The editing and rewriting of texts certainly is a frustrating and painful process, but without it, the pain and frustration are just handed down to the reader. The editor is a buffer, whose role is to ensure that your audience is not landed with chores—clarifying the arguments, teasing out relevant data, cutting unnecessary detail, checking the spelling, improving the flow and so on—that are none of its business, and can therefore focus on the substance. People who cannot stand being edited should know better: the public will not edit them either; more likely, it will edit them out.
A LEGITIMATE AMBITION of any aspiring analyst is to get his or her name in the paper, as a byline to an “opinion editorial” or op-ed, voicing strong personal views to the world. Established pundits will all have kept in a drawer, somewhere, that first paper edition bearing their patronym, as a trophy marking a significant achievement in life.
The market, therefore, is a competitive one. Prominent dailies and other major platforms publish only a handful of the hundreds—and, in some cases, thousands—of submissions they receive every week. Placing a non-commissioned op-ed can easily turn into an Odyssey. Conventional etiquette holds that it should be proposed to only one editor at a time—to avoid the embarrassment of having it accepted by several of them simultaneously. Yet most editors are overwhelmed and take time to respond—if they respond at all. As such, a piece of writing can meander from newspaper to magazine to digital portal over weeks, leaving its author to agonize at the perceived lack of recognition.
Cultivating relationships with editors is essential to receiving an answer sooner rather than later, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee results. Alternatively, such relationships might prompt commissioned op-eds, but these aren’t always the cruise they promise to be. Editors often reach out to authors not so much to solicit their original views, but to fill what they discern as a gap in the ongoing public debate; in other words, they would like you to conform to a role they ascribe to you, which only works out if you happen to share exactly their perspective.
As a rule, op-eds are an unusually formulaic exercise, which makes them both frustrating and extraordinarily useful as writing practice. The more prestigious the publication platform, the less freedom you tend to enjoy. The archetype of a New York Times opinion piece, for example, boils down to a clear-cut position within the accepted boundaries of an ongoing debate. Authors sporting nuanced or ambivalent reflections, an unconventionally radical take, or a preoccupation with important topics that are not already in the news, will likely stay in limbo.
Another critical factor is your perceived legitimacy to express the position in question; for many, an “opinion” is virtually devoid of value unless it is tagged to a recognizable function in society. Your name, indeed, never means much in and of itself—unless you have already reached stardom. Your “qualifications” must be explicit, even if contrived. Sometimes having an Arabic sounding name is enough to take a stance on Islam. Having penned a book, or belonging to a think-tank, may be enough to establish you as an “expert.”
Constraints extend to form. Editors usually reserve the right to choose the title. Prestigious platforms may go as far as publishing a partially rewritten text without running changes by the author. Length will rarely exceed 800 words, and market pressures are growing to push the word count still lower. Concision, though, is precisely the point of the exercise, and the reason why op-eds are such an efficient way of improving your writing.
The opinion piece, by nature, consists in convincing other people: your views must therefore be, above all, clear, compact and compelling. From this imperative flows the basic structure of an op-ed, which typically contains one powerful idea only, expounded in three parts: a hook, a body and a punchline.
The hook is the first paragraph, which must be both explicit and catchy: this is where you immediately specify what argument you are about to make and why. The need to do so in impactful ways, in a sentence or two, helps explain why op-eds are typically confined to familiar intellectual terrain—it takes far more explaining to engage an audience on entirely new ground. That is no excuse to shun the exercise: spelling out from the get-go, simply and effectively, what one is going to talk about is an extremely difficult and useful task in itself.
The body is a string of very short paragraphs that each contains one sub-idea, laid out in support of your core argument. They function almost like a set of bullet points, ticking off notions that are distinct but interrelated, and which together form a multidimensional discussion of the topic you announced in the hook. Unlike bony bullet points, they comprise just enough flesh—notably evidence, illustrations and transitions—to make for fluid reading.
The punchline appears in the last paragraph: in essence, having developed and proved your views, you circle back to the opinion expressed in the hook and nail it in with some dramatic reformulation. In other words, in an op-ed you state your case. You make your case. You rest your case. And that is a punchline right there.
Although opinion pieces are often romanticized as a lever for “shaping public debate” or “influencing policy-making,” it is hard to think of any example that meaningfully changed the course of history. Views expressed in an op-ed rarely are entirely novel: generally, they reflect relatively widespread positions that are constructed and disseminated over long periods of time. The transformative powers of an op-ed should not be exaggerated, in all but one way: your op-eds will transform you into a much better writer.
EDITING A TEXT proceeds in rounds, each of which takes a document up one notch, to the next level. Sometimes it may feel like playing Donkey Kong, with an angry editor throwing dynamite barrels at you to keep you down at the bottom of the ladder. In reality, the unhelpful creature tends to be the author’s own ego, while the set of ladders and levels is, in fact, the editing process—the path the text must escalate to reach the top. Authors can and will improve only by playing the game, over and over again. They will graduate to the next stage by substituting a layer of self-editing to a tier of third-party corrections. To do so, they must put themselves in the shoes of editors, assimilate their logic, and master their art.
This learning curve has the additional merit of liberating both the author and the editor from the grueling first rounds of back-and-forth, which consume much energy and often cause frustration on all sides. Here we carefully unpack each level, in a thorough editing process, to clarify exactly what happens at each.
Writing is always good practice, but some texts simply aren’t ready to be shared with anyone—let alone someone you expect to improve them. A document that doesn’t qualify to enter the editing game is missing one of these basic components:
- A provisional title, spelling out what the reader is about to read;
- Some basic shape, notably an initial framing clarifying the text’s intent, as well as a conclusion of sorts—in other words, a beginning and an end;
- Clean, conscientious presentation, which is the most elementary form of courtesy to whomever you are sharing the piece with.
- When editors receive scribblings lacking any of these components, they are entitled to just send them right back to the author. The positive way of seeing this is that it doesn’t take much, after all, for a text to qualify.
A text worth editing, at a beginner level, is a confused mass of sentences, typically containing some very interesting—albeit buried—ideas and instincts. This lack of structure may occur even if the author is highly intelligent, writes from experience accrued through enormous fieldwork, and followed a much-discussed outline. Only through extensive practice in the fields of writing and editing will structure begin to emerge more naturally.
It would be counterproductive, at this early stage, to focus on language. The goal is to assist the author in defining what exactly they want to say, rather than how to say it. “Edits”—in the sense of changes to words and sentences—in fact distract from that process. Instead, this early stage is best served by questions: what did you mean by this? What makes you say that? Have you considered this opposing statement? Doesn’t this contradict your earlier point? Can you support your general argument with examples? And so on. Through a list of well-considered queries, shared in writing or over an oral conversation, the editor will assist the author in clarifying, developing and organizing his or her thought process. Level 1, so to speak, is about bringing out the author in his or her own work.
This phase is also one where a unifying argument should emerge, along with a more refined and operational outline, to reflect the logical sequence of ideas derived from the answers to said questions. In other words, these must start articulating a robust structure, short of which the same problems will keep arising in subsequent drafts, which will remain stuck at level 1.
The second layer in the editing process is geared toward improving the flow and style, thus producing a text that will only require polishing moving forward. Before that can be done, the document must be well laid out, well-argued, and properly sourced. This entails a series of operations that typically leave the piece, if the “track changes” function is turned on, more red than black. A breakdown of classic interventions includes:
- Bringing together, in the same paragraph or section, related ideas dispersed in different parts of the text. This not only eliminates any sense of repetition, but usually clarifies and consolidates the essential points being made;
- Separating two or three distinct ideas that happen to be amalgamated in the same paragraph, granting each one a paragraph of its own. Spacing them out will shed light on their specific importance;
- Clarifying any leftover haziness around such ideas, with each spelled out explicitly at the start of individual sections or paragraphs;
- Collecting, under such statements, all the material necessary to explain, illustrate, and nuance them, and thereby determining what is still missing—such as sources—to “make the point”;
- Specifying, finally, the logical transitions from one such sequence to the next.
This process largely consists in cutting and moving material that is already in the text, before sewing the various clippings back together. A new, more fluid text will thus take form. Writing out subtitles per section (which can be removed later if need be) is a useful prop editors can use to keep track of what snipping should be going where. It also sheds light on how the text’s various moving parts ultimately will relate to each other. At the end of this stage, every component of the text must be in the right place, in the right order. Finishing ensues.
This last stage comes close to what most authors would like editing to boil down to: cutting a word here, suggesting a change there, and marveling at just how good the piece is. Experienced writers may sail through the first stretches, correcting their own course along the way, until they land on the golden shores of soft-touch editing. But it’s not rare that even they run aground long before that. In any event, the ultimate phase is almost always more rugged than just gracious tweaking. It likely involves:
- Removing any passive voice (as in “the text was written by the author,” to be replaced by “the author wrote the text”);
- Substituting strong verbs to weak ones (e.g. “she sputtered, yelled, sighed” versus “she said”);
- Replacing unnecessarily complicated language with simpler words, wherever possible;
- Eliminating any superfluous words—with excess adjectives and adverbs standing out as usual suspects;
- Trimming paragraphs—which as a rule should never be longer than ten lines, and whose concision is key to the piece’s overall flow;
- Ensuring metaphors are used appropriately and discerningly;
- And finalizing titles and subtitles.
The conventional view is that great texts are the outcome of a writing process in which editing plays a secondary part. The truth of the matter is quite different: great texts are the product of an editing process, in which writing is a necessary input. Authors who feel dispossessed by layers of editing have a perfect way of reclaiming full ownership: by becoming editors themselves.
- Cover: Eisenstein’s vertical montage by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- What writing is worth our while?: Eastman Johnson Reading boy by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Drafting a briefing based on your fieldwork: Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Framing your subject: Lee Harvey Oswald arrest card 1963 by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Writing in blocks: blocks puzzle by Pixabay / licensed by CC.
- Giving a title: Knighting of Sir Galahad Jasper Anglican by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Writing rituals: Craig Cloutier Rain dance by Flickr / licensed by CC.
- Analytic writing: Map of Lewis and Clark’s expedition by Wikipedia; Itinerary of Matthew Paris by Flickr; Map of the Royal itinerary in metropolitan Winnipeg by Flickr; Detailed itinerary map of great Japan by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- The opinion piece: wartuba by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Beat the editor at his game: Bresciani Emanuele Gynoug Wings of Wor - Boss Locomotive Breath by Flickr / licensed by CC.