Peta Jinnath Abdul, Editor

Writer. Editor. Language Consultant.

Developing the Idea, Part 1/5: What/Why/Why

Developing your idea takes time. Many people think writing is just sit, write, edit. A grievous misconception. Development is necessary to streamlined writing. Invest time now and your entire writing process will be smoother.  In this series, we’re working on a week-to-week process. Although some pieces can be sped up if needed, remember that mental space is essential to ideation and structural development.

The biggest part of writing a non-fiction book is trust. It’s trust that you have something to say, that is worth saying, that people need.

When we write, we transfer knowledge. But where does that knowledge come from? Us. It comes from the way we perceive the world, the way we internalize our learning. The knowledge we transfer is uniquely ours. This is why ideation is intuitive. There are many ways to structure a book, many templates and how-to manuals. Yet structure and craft must come after ideation. Why? Intuition does not fit a template. Intuition is about you, the writer, the sender, the creator, the questioner. Intuition is about your what if?

Not sure about what if? Step back for a moment. Think.

Writing begins in the moment of what if?

Science begins in the moment of what if?

Creativity begins in the moment of what if?

What if? and I don’t know are two of the most important sentences in the universe. When we say these things, we are poised for discovery. We are ready to ideate. If we ignore these lines in favor of someone else’s ideas, someone else’s template, we box ourselves in. We fail to create. We fail to learn. It’s easy to skip what if moments — many of us are trained to follow a set path. We think of analysis, research, data. And that’s wonderful. But the world is not discovered solely through analysis. The world is discovered through questions. Scientific achievement — highly dependent on data, analysis, and research as it is — hinges on the moment of what if?

Right now, as you think about your book, you stand at the edge of a cliff. Below, the ocean is lovely, dark and deep. The wind is high. You are alone.

You could leap and trust the wind, fall and forget about the landing. You could craft wings and take off, or purchase a paraglider. You could step back, meander toward the village below. What you do is up to you — not me. Not the guy with the wax wing manual for only $7.95, comes with free wax. Not the woman selling paragliders thirty feet down the road.

You.

You drive your decisions. If you decide on the paraglider, you talk to the woman. If you want wax wings, you seek out the guy. Writing is the same. Structure and templates have their place; we’ll discuss them later on in this series. But first, you need to develop your idea. You need to trust yourself, trust your knowledge is meaningful, useful, and needed. Until you do that, your writing will not be truly yours — and your idea will never reach its full potential.

Developing your idea takes time. Many people think writing is just sit, write, edit. A grievous misconception. Development is necessary to streamlined writing. Invest time now and your entire writing process will be smoother.

I’ve laid out this series as week-to-week work. Although some pieces can be sped up, if needed, mental space is essential to ideation and structural development. If it feels like you’re taking a long time, consider how much time you spend talking and thinking about an idea before we hit the keyboard. A lot, right? This is a codification of that process, a way to get the most out of our natural tendencies and skills.

So, let’s get started.

W/W/W Framework: What, Why, Why?

How do I work out my idea?

How do I figure out my argument?

How do I structure a book?

I hear these questions often. They are good, valid questions.

Right now, they’re also the wrong questions.

In the early stages of book genesis, we do not limit ourselves. We think broadly. We keep an open, flexible mind. We use the W/W/W framework – what, why, why.

  • What’s my story?
  • Why do I care?
  • Why does my receiver care?

Why does this matter? Why do we think about story and caring this early in the game?

Because writing is about connection.

When we write, we send a message, literally transferring thoughts from mind to page. When we read, we receive a message, literally taking thoughts from the page, beaming them through a complex web of cognition and interpretation to reconstruct the writer’s intent. Connection starts early. It’s an organic process, something we can’t overlay after the fact. This means that to write well, we need to start drawing connections between our idea, our passion, and the reader’s need as soon as we can. A book written without reader-need has no market; a book written without passion is dusty and apathetic. Identifying why our receiver cares is an essential part of our development process. Answering our what, why, why questions helps us jumpstart this process, start creating a connection between sender and receiver.  

Take some time now. Jot down a few notes. It doesn’t matter if you write a line, or if you write six or seven grafs. Don’t think too hard. Just write. If the blank screen bothers you, scratch about on a notepad. Use diagrams, sketches, anything. Give in to thinking. But do not take too long. Keep your scratch session to under an hour. Anything over this crosses into over-thinking territory, the bane of the creative mind. Remember, this is an intuitive process. Go with your gut. Trust yourself. Trust the knowledge you’ve accumulated and internalized.

Once you’ve worked out your answers, step back for a little while, then go back and re-read. Next, work through our second set of questions:

  • How long can I talk about my idea? Test this out. Aim to talk about your idea for five minutes. If you get stuck, you’re not ready to start playing with structure or refining. If you can make five minutes easily — and keep going — you’re ready to pass Go.
  • How often do I say “I don’t know?” Many of us are trained to think of not knowing as weakness. It is not.  I don’t know is an important ideation marker. If you know everything going into the writing process, chances are, your book will be boring. Why? Because writing is also about discovery. Fiction, non-fiction, even academic essays — all good writing embodies an element of discovery. To write is to learn. To learn is to care. And to care is to connect. If you have fewer than three “I don’t know” points, you’re not ready to move on to structure yet. Go read. Widely. Out of your field, when you can. Keep an open mind, and let your thoughts skim about, looking for connections.
  • Who can I talk to? And how much do I trust them? Discussion is an essential part of writing. It’s often said that writing is a solitary process. And it is, in the sense of having to sit in the chair and create. Yet having an open, flexible person to chat to makes writing both easier and more enjoyable. Every writer needs a person, someone to spitball with, someone to explore potentialities and offer “what if” and “have you thought of” moments. It is easy to grow too close to a written work; having a go-to person keeps you on balance. Choose someone you trust, someone who knows you well. They do not have to be an expert in your field–they only have to be an expert on you.

Spend the next few days working through this post. Go back and re-read your W/W/W answers. Practice talking about your idea. Call up a few friends and chat. Get comfortable with your idea. Explore it. Jot down your thoughts.

Next week, we’ll dig into Socratic dialogue, a way to critically assess your idea, refine it, and start working on a plan.

Is swearing or innuendo ever appropriate in a title? What about a book?

A client question with many moving parts. Let’s set up our definitions first.

Swearing: the use of offensive language. Most swearing is comprised of references to body parts or elimination. Other swear words are related to religious tenets.

Innuendo: a sexually suggestive remark.

Both of these are what we call “taboo” [1]. Taboo means something restricted or prevented by social customs or mores. There are many taboo pieces of language. General rule of thumb: if you’d chide a child for saying it, it’s probably taboo.

Does swearing really matter anymore? Isn’t the internet full of innuendo?

Yes and yes. But there’s a difference between the languages we use personally and the languages we use professionally. Do you speak to your loved ones the same way you speak to your employer, or potential clients? Probably not.

There are five key considerations in whether using taboo language matters to you:

  • current social mores
  • the innuendo itself and the psychological signifier
  • implicit discourse, or the things we imply between the lines
  • permissivity, or what you’re allowing in your presence, or among your audience
  • the image you project

Each of these will affect your audience. Which means that to decide on your boundaries, you need to think about your audience.

Norm-breaking

Taboos are always norm-breaking. This is exactly what it sounds like: something that breaks away from the norm. We do this when we swear, especially if we use a swear word for emphasis. That says hey! this is more important/painful/wonderful/irritating than all those other scenarios!

We also break norms when we question our environment. Social Justice Warriors are excellent norm-breakers, who challenge the status quo with intent and meaning.

In marketing, norm-breaking can separate us from the community we’re trying to reach [2]. Marketing writing, content marketing, and copy all tie into collectives and communities. If we break too far from the norm, we alienate our audience. Understanding the meaning of taboo in a given community is necessary to knowing what’s okay and what’s not.

The Forbidden Pyramid & Social Mores

Taboo is linked to current social mores, or customs and manners. These change as society changes. In the US, Australia, and the UK, this means most mores reflect religious (usually Christian) values. That said, not all taboo things are created equal.

If we think of milder, sometimes-okay taboo as the bottom of the pyramid and never-okay taboo as up the top, we get something that reflects our values. An easy way to visualize this is to use film ratings.

Pyramid using film ratings and colors

Adapted from MPAA.org

The higher up the pyramid you climb, the more taboo you get.

Every community will have its own Forbidden Pyramid. What constitutes taboo will change with the standard socioeconomic factors, but also with collective identities and communities.

Think about your market and audience. What would their Forbidden Pyramid look like?

Belonging and Rapport

Now we know what taboo is, and that swearing and innuendo are taboo, we can look at how they affect our work.

If you use something on the lower end of the forbidden pyramid now and then, you’re probably okay. It’s mild, and likely acceptable. But if you use it too much, you cross into “not-one-of-us” territory.

While this won’t result in Shirley Jackson Lottery level stoning, it’s still not pretty. Content marketing and excellent copy depend on rapport and trust. Using too much taboo language makes it almost impossible to establish a sender-receiver relationship. How to know what’s taboo? Think about a teenager. If they’d giggle at it, axe it.

Implicit discourse

This is what we say between the lines — it’s the textual version of matching actions to words. Some taboo phrases, like “getting lucky,” carry the implicit discourse that “women don’t belong here.” They enforce the boys’ club narrative.

If you’re thinking about using swearing or innuendo, think about why you’re using it, and what it says to your receivers. What does it do to them, as an audience?

Does it empower them?

Does it steal their power?

Does it affirm something important?

Does it alienate anyone?

If you’re not sure, do some research. Look at other uses of this language in your target demographic. How is it being used? What’s the effect? The best way to understand how a community uses language is to go out and listen to it.

Can implicit discourse really affect marketshare and income?

Let’s talk about our “getting lucky” example for a minute. It’s alienating to women. A title with this phrasing is probably a bad choice because:

  • Equality matters. If we can’t express equality in our words, how will we express it in our actions? Using such phrasing immediately calls all our other value statements into question.
  • You cut up your market. If you can be certain there’s no female audience for your work, your income might be unaffected. But that’s a highly unlikely scenario.

Permissivity and Image

What you write defines your audience’s perception of you as a person. Whether this is fair or not is immaterial. In most cases, an  audience has only your work to judge by. If you use questionable phrasing or words in your work, you grant permission to your audience to do the same thing. “I didn’t mean it that way” or “I was just joking” cannot negate that first blanket permission.

The title you use is a reflection of yourself. The words you choose for your book are a reflection of yourself. Think about your audience. Think about who you are and who you want to be. Select your words with care.

 

Notes:

[1] Note that there are specific meanings and uses for “taboo” in an academic context.

[2] There are times when we want to do this, but that’s another post.

Writing Framework: EDT

EDT is a writing framework that helps you plan, develop, and write conceptual works. It stands for Explain, Define, Teach. Unlike many writing frameworks, it specifically addresses the needs of the receiver, the person reading or listening to your piece. 

Use Cases: how-to style posts, teaching posts, whitepapers, series, pitch decks, non-fiction books. Especially suited to work over 5,000 words.

Writing Framework: Explain, Define, Teach

EDT uses the principles of good writing alongside teaching pedagogy. It’s built off two key teaching concepts: explicit teaching, and Bloom’s taxonomy. Explicit teaching is when a teacher uses an I do, you do lesson to help students work through a concept, then try it out for themselves. Bloom’s taxonomy sets out a learning path that applies across many fields and styles of learning: remember, know, understand, analyze, create. Together, these ideas help you craft a piece that clearly explains the problem, your conceptual solution, and your actual (how-to) solution. It can be used as an overarching framework for a book or series, in conjunction with an existing framework such as PIGS, or for smaller how-to pieces. EDT is also a good fit for big ideas and thought leadership works, with at least three things contributing to the key concept. Using the EDT framework helps you:

  • explain why your piece matters
  • define a clear outcome for your work
  • provide enough background for your receiver to understand the importance of what you’re writing and how it affects them
  • teach a key concept or solve a problem

Although EDT is broken into three pieces, the percentage weight for each varies according to the use case. In a speech, the Teach step is smaller than it would be in a book. In a book, the Define step is smaller than it would be in a speech. Another way to conceptualise this is to rework the writing tools you learnt in high school.

Before starting out with EDT, spend a few minutes working out what your end game is. If you’re writing a pitch deck, your end game is to bring on a new client. If you’re writing a whitepaper, your end game could be to sell your company’s new service. Be as clear as you can.

Explain: What/Why?

This is a grounding step. First, clearly state your idea or key point. This is the what of your piece — what matters, what’s coming up, what your receiver cares about. Keep it clear and simple, but ensure it’s related to your end goal. Ensure you provide all the background information your receiver needs to know. Don’t leave anything out — if you have too much detail, it can be cleaned up in post.

This is an especially important step because most folks jump straight into the why of a piece. Jumping straight into the why is a completely valid approach, and it fits lots of scenarios, but it requires a base level of knowledge in the receiver. But if you’re writing about anything — anything — that’s outside your audience’s general knowledge base, jumping straight into “why” can be confusing. This first step, Explain, is a comfort step. If you skip it, you risk dropping your receiver into a special kind of intellectual Hell: they know what you’re saying matters; they feel like they should understand it, but are struggling; they feel stupid. No one wants to feel stupid, so your receiver:

  • pretends they understood
  • leaves

Neither are good options. So you use this step, the Explain step, to state your idea and seed information. At the end of this section, your receiver will remember the important information, and know why your work is important. Most of the time, this section is around 30% of your piece.

Define: Restating the what

Now you’ve established the key concept and the background, it’s time to restate the concept again. Define it clearly. Although this may seem repetitive, this restatement of your concept is the hinge in of the piece. When you first stated the concept, you used a hook, but your receiver didn’t have any context. It was just a statement, a lead in to the important stuff. Now, your receiver has context. Now, when you restate your key idea, the receiver understands what you’re saying and why they should care about your words. At the end of this step, your receiver moves from remembering and knowing to understanding your concept. Most of the time, this is around 20% of your piece.

Teach: All About The How

This is where you get things done. It’s usually the biggest part of the piece, because you have to step your receiver through your process. Be as clear as you can. Include lists, images, and examples where relevant. At the end of this step, your receiver moves from understanding your concept into analysing it, breaking it into pieces, then creating with it. Most of the time, this is around 50% of the piece.

When you’re finished, go back over the material and tighten it up. Work through each piece and ask:

    • Explain: what/why
      Is it clear what my idea is? What’s the context my receiver needs? Have I ensured they have everything they need? Have I given enough context for them to understand why they should care? What does my receiver remember and know at the end of this section? Spend time cutting out any extraneous material.
    • Define: what
      Have I restated my idea clearly? What does my reader understand at the end of this point?
    • Teach: how
      Have I set up clear steps my receiver can follow? Have I provided a clear how-to? Can my receiver break down the idea I’ve explored then apply it to their own situation?

The percentages here are not hard and fast; they will shift according to the type of material you’re working on. In a business book, your chapters might use EDT with a 30/20/50 breakdown, but the book itself is more 40/40/20. Remember: before you start, work out what your end game is. Once you’re done, go back and make sure you’re hitting it.

Need a framework for something smaller? Try out PEER, which is well-suited to simpler, individual pieces under 2000 words, like blog posts and press releases.

Writing Framework: PEER

PEER is a writing framework I developed to help my clients understand structure. It’s the single most useful framework for most writers because it can be adapted to any single point piece of writing. It stands for Point, Explain, Evidence, Review.

Use Cases: blog posts, individual articles or book chapters, pitch letters, press releases, essays, general teaching tools under 3000 words, simple analysis under 2000 words.

PEER Writing Framework as an image

Rather than focussing on all the discrete pieces of an idea, PEER makes your life easier by helping you work out what you’re trying to say before you start writing. Working this way means you:

  • stay on topic
  • keep your explanations concise
  • provide concrete evidence without waffle or chunks of irrelevant text
  • write a clear and concise summary of your main point

If you already have your content but feel like it’s wandering or waffling, PEER will help you bring structure to your work. To do this, run through your piece with a pencil and mark only the pieces directly relevant to each of the pieces described below. Be ruthless. If it doesn’t fit into the percentages I’ve listed, go back again, and cut more. Pay attention to extraneous facts or doubled up evidence.

Point:  What’s your big idea? 

This is the reason you’re writing. You should be able to state your point in a single sentence or tweet. If you can’t drill down to a single line summary, then you probably have too many ideas in your piece. Invest time in working out exactly what you want your reader to know. You can do this by asking questions such as What does the reader need to know? Why does my reader care? If I had only sixty seconds to explain this, what would I say first? If you’re really stuck, write down keywords, and build your single sentence summary out from there. Once you’re done, write out your point grafs. There’s no exact word count to this, but the Point in your piece should be no more than 20% of the total. If your point is less than 5% of the total, chances are you haven’t established properly, so make a note and come back to it at the end.

Explain: Why is your point important? 

Here’s where you get to delve into your idea more and get into the why/what/how. What’s your key concept? Why does it matter? How are you going to help your receiver?

Explaining your major point should take around 25–30% of your total. Use language suitable to your audience, and make sure you’ve clearly defined any new terms or acronyms. Expand on why your point matters, and how you’re going to prove it. Use this space to ground your reader in the topic.

Evidence: Proving your point

Evidence, evidence, evidence! When you write, you need to be able to back up your words. In non-fiction, this could mean statistics, charts, or quotes from appropriate sources. You’ve grounded your reader, explained why they should care about your point, and now you have to show them you’re worth your proverbial salt. Do not just state evidence, then sit back and relax. Evidence without context or some analysis is a waste of time. Tie your evidence back to your Point and Explanation. Ideally, you can walk your receiver through your why/what/how with real data. If you can’t write a because statement, like “this evidence shows that X because of Y”, you have a problem. Work out what your evidence is saying, how it supports your Point and Explanation, then try again.

Ngram of Clinton, Obama, and Trump, 1998-2008

These lines  show how many times each subject shows up in books catalogued by Google, over a ten-year period. They demonstrate nothing without explanation, analysis, or context.

Evidence should make up around 30% of your total. In some cases, this figure might run as high as 40% of the total count. Do not let evidence overrun your piece. Evidence is part of a greater whole, and it is possible to have too much.

Review: Ensure your receiver understands your main point

Recap your Point and how you’ve addressed it. Think about the takeaways in your piece. Did you successfully teach a concept? Did you show how you worked through from your question to your answer? Your Review should be around 10–15% of your article total, unless you’ve written an analysis-heavy piece. If you’ve spent a lot of time digging into your evidence, the review should reflect the major takeaways, and comprise around 20% of the total.

Some folks like to write a basic single line frame with PEER, defining four sentences and then building out from there. When I use it in high school English classrooms, I have students write questions around the steps, then answer them. Clients who know their topic well and are looking for a better way to structure their thoughts often write each graf in sequence, then go back and check they’ve adhered to the structure to keep their writing tight and focussed. Do whatever works for you. PEER doesn’t replace your knowledge, or provide you with new knowledge. Writing frameworks are about expression, about bringing structure to your thoughts. PEER helps you:

  • express what you know
  • express what you have
  • state what you want
  • or some combination of all three.

You can also use PEER as a secondary framework in larger pieces (which we’ll discuss next time). Remember, whatever the content, if you can drill down to a single point, you can use PEER.