Burgess Laughlin

Using a spec sheet as an aid to writing

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I am always looking for better ways to write. Sometimes that means adopting new techniques. At other times, it means re-examining techniques that have worked, but not as fully as they might have. Following are my notes on one such technique: using a specifications sheet for a writing project such as a long post to an online forum, an essay for school, or a book. I believe, based on some experience with both fields, that spec sheets can help both fiction and nonfiction writers.

EXAMPLE SPECIFICATIONS

Taken together, the following descriptions make up my spec sheet for this post to THE FORUM.

- My purpose in developing this post is to wrestle with what I already know about one writing technique in hopes of wringing more benefits from it.

- My subject is the use of spec sheets.

- My theme is: Spec sheets facilitate the writing process.

- My intended audience consists of people who think about better ways to get things done, especially in writing.[1]

- My approach here is to present my notes clearly enough that my audience can critique them, that is, point out errors and offer superior alternatives.

- My expectation is that some readers will correct or add to what I suggest.

USES OF SPEC SHEETS

At the start of a writing project, specs describe what the writer wants his post, essay, or book to be. If he can't specify the essential characteristics, he is not ready to begin detailed research, much less outline the piece or write a draft.

So, cognitively, a major benefit of spec sheets is that they require the writer to be explicit about his intentions. As Ayn Rand observes, approximations are not good enough.[2]

Psycho-epistemologically, identifying specs at the beginning brings two benefits. First, the struggle required to think through the specs sends a message to the subconscious: "The effort I have invested in this explication shows this project is important and therefore worth storing in memory and mulling over subconsciously." Second, explicitly identifying specs gives the subconscious higher quality material for processing during "off hours."

A spec sheet is also useful to the writer at major milestones throughout his project. A spec sheet helps him stay on track. It gives him perspective. As he immerses himself in the minutiae of research, note-taking, and outlining, he can, for example, select more appropriate facts and make more accurate integrations.

Later in the project, especially near the end, a spec sheet helps the writer evaluate his work. Has he written what he set out to write, no more and no less? Or, if he deviated from the original specs, is the deviation better than the original specification?

Thus, editorially, a spec sheet is useful for exposing whatever errors the writer has made in his preliminary thinking -- exposing the errors both to himself and to the critics he has chosen to review his project at various stages.

As the writer immerses himself in the details of his research and thinking, he may gain new insights that lead him to refine his spec sheet. If so, then at the end of the project, a spec sheet describes the project as it actually is. This is useful socially, for example, in talking to editors, agents, and publishers.

Thus, in conclusion, I can say that spec sheets are useful to a writer at all stages of a writing project, and in a variety of ways: cognitively, psycho-epistemologically, editorially, and socially.[3]

[1] Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, discusses audience, theme, and subject. See the index for many entries. [2] Ayn Rand, TAN, p. 17. [3] Peter Schwartz, "The Writing Process," audiotape lectures (available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore), describes the overall writing process. These lectures are not only informative, but enjoyable to listen to knowing they come from a professional writer and editor. Peter Schwartz's style is simple, clear, and straightforward.

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Several points: First, Burgess notes that he has "some experience in both fields" of writing. If I may say, Burgess has been a successful writer in several fields for most of his adult life. I, for one, appreciate his offer of suggestions to other writers (and aspiring writers).

I, too, use a spec sheet when I write fiction, although my format is slightly different. Naturally, the entries for fiction might include plot theme, type/length of story, point of view, etc. Otherwise, mine works just like Burgess's example.

Burgess writes:

So, cognitively, a major benefit of spec sheets is that they require the writer to be explicit about his intentions. As Ayn Rand observes, approximations are not good enough.

I see two things of interest to me here and in the example. A spec sheet helps you to be both explicit and purposeful; explicit because you must write several concise, complete sentences in answer to key questions about what you want to say; and purposeful, because you must essentialize in order to do so.

Burgess notes that the spec sheet gives the writer perspective while he writes. It keeps him on track. That is partly because it represents the whole of his work reduced down to a unit (or several units) that he can easily handle within his crow.

I challenge anyone to find a quality writer who skips this step. An advanced writer may say that he doesn't do it, but only because he has become so good at it that he can do it explicitly in his head, and then only because he spent many, many years doing it on paper.

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It looks like we have a similar approach. As those who have taken one of my writing classes can attest, I have my students make a similar "spec sheet" before they write and I have them keep it in front of them for reference if they get stuck.

EXAMPLE SPECIFICATIONS

Taken together, the following descriptions make up my spec sheet for this post to THE FORUM.

- My purpose in developing this post is to wrestle with what I already know about one writing technique in hopes of wringing more benefits from it.

The first thing I have them do is state their Purpose.

- My subject is the use of spec sheets.

- My theme is: Spec sheets facilitate the writing process.

I combine these into what I call the Basic Message.

- My intended audience consists of people who think about better ways to get things done, especially in writing.[1]

I ask them to choose one person as their Target Reader.

- My approach here is to present my notes clearly enough that my audience can critique them, that is, point out errors and offer superior alternatives.

- My expectation is that some readers will correct or add to what I suggest.

I usually put those into the Purpose.

In addition, I have my students choose a Target Length. For writing longer than a letter to the Editor, the prep work also includes research (if necessary) and outlining the structure of the article.

Once the prep work is done, people are amazed that the work just "writes itself" straight out of their subconscious -- and it's darn good, too!

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hi Everyone!

I think Betsy's and Burgess's templates seem specialized to different lengths of writing. Burgess, you normally write fairly long pieces, right? Whereas Betsy's one-sentence technique [which I've found very helpful, a green light to my writing inductions] was customized for letters to the editor of about 100words, right?

It's generally the case that the amount of structure that's desirable is in proportion to the size of the resulting work.

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I think Betsy's and Burgess's templates seem specialized to different lengths of writing.  Burgess, you normally write fairly long pieces, right?  Whereas Betsy's one-sentence technique [which I've found very helpful, a green light to my writing inductions] was customized for letters to the editor of about 100words, right?

It's generally the case that the amount of structure that's desirable is in proportion to the size of the resulting work.

Defining ones purpose, basic message, and target reader are skills I teach for ALL writing from a short letter to the editor to a work the size of _Atlas Shrugged_.

When I do a writing workshop, I do have the students try my approach with a short letter to the editor. When I do additional classes, I teach skills used for longer works: researching, outlining, editing, and, for fiction, plot structuring, dialog, etc.

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Thanks for your post on using a spec sheet as an aid to writing. I can see The Art of Nonfiction similarities. I have had the most success with 1) developing questions in the context of brainstorming (sometimes using a "mind map"), 2) categorizing the questions/ideas, 3) crafting an outline (with the appropriate amount of detail), and 4) writing the draft. That approach gets the balance of righ-brain/left-brain activities.

I also noticed The Aristotle Adventure among your accomplishments. I am new to Aristotle and finding him difficult. Are there some translations easier than others? I picked up Mortimer Adler's Aristotle for Everyone. In your opinion, will it be helpful? What other advice would you offer?

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I also noticed The Aristotle Adventure among your accomplishments. I am new to Aristotle and finding him difficult. Are there some translations easier than others? I picked up Mortimer Adler's Aristotle for Everyone. In your opinion, will it be helpful? What other advice would you offer?

Burgess Laughlin hasn't posted here in quite awhile, so I don't know if he still even reads messages, as an FYI.

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- My intended audience consists of people who think about better ways to get things done, especially in writing.[1]

I ask them to choose one person as their Target Reader.

I too use a spec sheet, but I have found that I no longer include an "intended audience" for fiction. I was writing "myself" every time, so I figured I was just wasting ink, but perhaps I am missing the point.

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- My intended audience consists of people who think about better ways to get things done, especially in writing.[1]

I ask them to choose one person as their Target Reader.

I too use a spec sheet, but I have found that I no longer include an "intended audience" for fiction. I was writing "myself" every time, so I figured I was just wasting ink, but perhaps I am missing the point.

If your audience is yourself now, this won't work. After all, the purpose of non-fiction writing is to tell someone something they don't already know and/or convince them to change their views.

It can, however, be useful to use, as a Target Reader, yourself at some previous time in your life (such as yourself before your read Ayn Rand). Even then, you have to be cautious lest your current knowledge and values influence the cognitive and value context you are trying to establish.

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- My intended audience consists of people who think about better ways to get things done, especially in writing.[1]

I ask them to choose one person as their Target Reader.

I too use a spec sheet, but I have found that I no longer include an "intended audience" for fiction. I was writing "myself" every time, so I figured I was just wasting ink, but perhaps I am missing the point.

If your audience is yourself now, this won't work. After all, the purpose of non-fiction writing is to tell someone something they don't already know and/or convince them to change their views.

It can, however, be useful to use, as a Target Reader, yourself at some previous time in your life (such as yourself before your read Ayn Rand). Even then, you have to be cautious lest your current knowledge and values influence the cognitive and value context you are trying to establish.

I agree completely Betsy. I mentioned above, though, that I no longer use it specifically for fiction. Is there a reason that a fiction piece might benefit from the audience consideration? Actually, a better question might be to ask is if intending fiction to an audience other than yourself is a second-handed premise?

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Is there a reason that a fiction piece might benefit from the audience consideration? Actually, a better question might be to ask is if intending fiction to an audience other than yourself is a second-handed premise?

It certainly isn't!

The whole point of story-telling is to present a value conflict and its resolution. The author has to know what is going to happen next and how, but the reader must not until the climax of the story. Not knowing what happens next and if the characters will get what they are after is what keeps the reader turning pages. Doling out enough information to keep the reader interested without telling too much and spoiling the plot is one of the great intellectual challenges of fiction-wrinting.

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