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Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

1. In my last article, I talked about the huge benefits we can get from funneling information into an outline. Outlining is helpful for a single person (or sometimes a group) to take a lot of information and make regular use out of it. In this follow-up, I’ll talk about other ways to organize a lot of information or ideas, with pros and cons for each.

Wikipedia Concept Map by Juhan Sonin

2. One option is to remember only whatever happens to stick and be reconciled to forgetting a lot of it. This is often our go-to method, for instance if we watch a documentary out of personal interest. It’s perfectly appropriate if we’re not going to need to put the information to direct use but just want to be exposed to it. For instance, I haven’t done anything specific with what I’ve learned from seeing God Grew Tired of Us, but it added to my perspective and my understanding of other people’s lives, and I’m glad I saw it.

3. We can go over it repeatedly until it’s memorized, which is the way, for example, we try to learn foreign languages, because we need that information be available in our heads. If I want to go to France and speak with other people there, it’s not going to help me to have a laptop with me so that I can look up verbs > subjunctive > irregular in my outline to help me say “Would it be a problem if I were to go along?”

4. We can leave it unorganized and just go through the whole thing when we need something from it, as most of us do or have done with notes from classes. This can go along with the memorizing approach, but it’s very inefficient if you want to be able to interact with your information and find things in it quickly.

5. We can use a tagging system in which we label each item with all the terms that apply to it, so that in addition to looking at the information in order, we can also filter down to just a particular kind. This is the way most blogs are organized. For instance, you can click the word “organization” in the tags for this post to see other posts of mine on the subject of organization.

6. We can index it, as we traditionally do with books, but this is a lot of work, and my experience is that indexes aren’t used very often unless a person knows exactly what they’re looking for.

7. If it’s information that we can somehow make into images, we can visualize it as a chart, graph, map, or diagram. Visualizing information usually means losing or hiding most of the detail and often comes with a limit as to how much information you can add, but it creates a big-picture perspective that can be difficult to come by otherwise. One approach to this is drawing or using  software to create a “concept map” (also called a “mind map” or “spray diagram”). There’s an introduction to concept maps at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_01.htm . I must say that I don’t find concept maps especially useful, but they do seem to be fairly popular. If you get a lot of use out of them, your commenting to offer perspective on the issue would be much appreciated.

One popular (and free) concept mapping tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux is FreeMind.

8. Finally, we can link it, making connections between one chunk of information and other chunks of information. This is a lot of work, but it creates an environment in which we can flow freely from topic to another. Wikipedia (one of my favorite inventions of all time) and other wikis are organized this way, as is the Internet as a whole. It’s useful for information that keeps expanding, especially from different sources, but it’s nearly impossible to link together all the topics that might be related to each other, and it’s hard to find all of the pieces of any one particular area of knowledge; more often, we’re just led from one subject to another related one with no clear end in sight.

All of these approaches have their uses, but my sense is that outlining is the most underused and under-rated tool in the toolbox. If you’re comfortable with computers and have a mass of information or ideas to sort out, it may be just the thing to toss into your organizational mix.

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How to Make Sense of a Flood of Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

When I began to get serious about professional speaking, it was clear to me that regardless of how much I knew about my subject (teaching people how to change), that I had a lot of research still to do–on professional speaking itself. I needed to get much more familiar with types of events, presentation practices, ways to structure talks, compensation, how to deliver the most value for my audiences, and so on. To that end, I started reading books and articles and hunting down videos to watch online. A flood of information began pouring in, and I found myself coming up with a steady stream of ideas for presentations and ways to connect. The problem then was to find a way to make sure I could use everything I was getting, that it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten.

This is the same situation a person runs into, for example, when writing a book, getting immersed in a new topic, planning a business, or organizing a large event. What do you do with all this information?

You outline it.

Why an outline?
To make use of a lot of information, we need to categorize it. This isn’t just for convenience: our brains are used to dealing with just a few things at a time. (The limit used to be thought to be around 7 items, but it turns out it’s probably more like 4: for example, see http://www.livescience.com/2493-mind-limit-4.html .)  So if I have 2,000 individual pieces of information to keep track of, I’m going to want to group them into few enough categories that I can easily navigate through the whole thing. Within those categories, I’m still going to have hundreds of items, so I need to group that information further, and so forth. These categories-within-categories make up an outline.

Once I have my outline, I may have sections that have a special purpose, like a to do list (or items to add to my main task management system, whatever that is), questions that need to be answered, people I’ll want to remember, and so on. The great thing about using an outline for this is that I can find a piece of information whether I know what I’m looking for or not. For example, here’s a screen shot of part of my outline for my speaking business. You can click on it to view it at full size. Each of the little folder icons represents either a category or a chunk of text (or both).

If I’m putting a new topic together, I’ll be looking at my Speaking section under “delivery techniques,” and I’ll be reminded of the tip about having one key point under “structuring a talk.” If, in a different situation, I’m trying to remember exactly what I thought was important about structuring a talk, my outline will make the information easy to find.

Creating the outline is easy
The actual work involved in putting an outline together isn’t hard, because all you have to do is take one thing at a time and decide where you want to put it. If you don’t already have a good place to put it, you make one up. If one part of your outline is getting too full, you break things down into a greater level of detail. If you have too many branches off of one item, you can group them into larger branches, for instance grouping a bunch of recipe ideas for an event into desserts, entrees, side dishes, and so on.

When I’m gathering information or brainstorming ideas, I usually start by taking down a whole lot of unstructured notes. Whenever I’m ready, whether with all of it at once or just one section, I can start putting those notes into an outline.

Of course, you’ll need something to create the outline in. Less complicated outlines can be kept in a word processing program, but what’s more useful is a specialized kind of program called an outliner. The screen shot you see is of a free one I’ve been using called Treepad Lite, which you can get at www.treepad.com . There are more sophisticated outliners too, and I’ll probably upgrade to one of those before too long. Suggestions are welcome.

Outlines are made up of “nodes.” Each node can contain information and can also contain other nodes. With a good outliner program, you can have as many levels of nodes-within-nodes as you need, which means that you can branch or group or expand your outline however and whenever you want to.

If the information you’re gathering is meant to end up as a single written piece in the end, I can wholeheartedly recommend Scrivener, which is a kind of hybrid outliner-word processor that can take a lot of material and help you cook it down into something that flows from beginning to end.

In the second article in this series, I’ll talk about the alternatives to outlining and the pros and cons of each.

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Writing Differently: Picking Up the Scary Tools

Writing

In creating Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Joss Whedon picks up some scary tools of his own

If all has gone well with your writing so far, by now you may have some favorite practices: maybe you always outline your pieces, or have a moment in mind you want to go to, or you scribble a bunch of scenes on index cards and then try to figure out their proper order. You may have a sense of some special strengths and weaknesses: maybe people tell you you have an ear for dialog, or you have trouble with action scenes, or your settings come out convincing and vivid, or you couldn’t write romance if Jane Austen were sitting on your lap.

So, good: you have some favorite techniques to use. This now gives you an opportunity to do something very productive–specifically, to violate them.

Why, you might sensibly ask, would I throw away exactly the things that work for me best? Why put aside the comfortable tools for the scary tools that I’m not even sure I can operate correctly?

First, I’m only suggesting this as an exercise, or a series of exercises. There’s nothing to say that if you’re an outline writer now that you can’t stay an outline writer forever … but if you want to improve both the quality of your prose and your facility in getting the words on paper, you’ll want to up your game, and upping your game generally means not just trying harder, but trying differently. Good writing habits are valuable, and consistency creates them, but variation creates learning opportunities that consistency can’t offer.

Here are some of the advantages of trying differently:

  • You get insights into your process, into what advantages your current approach has and/or why you should start considering other avenues.
  • You may unexpectedly find a new favorite method of doing something. If you’re used to writing one way, you may have avoided another approach because you don’t have the practice at it and feel unsure of yourself. Experimenting with those other ways gives you the chance to try them on for size.
  • You’ll get a better sense of what your available tools and options are. For instance, if you generally write very little dialog and as an exercise trying writing an all-dialog story, you may find yourself working out dialog techniques that you had never considered before. These become new tools on your utility belt, ones that might come in handy if you hit a wall with your usual tools some time in the future.
  • Challenging yourself while writing is a good way to stimulate your brain and improve your chops. We get better at tasks through “deliberate practice,” which is to say challenging work plus feedback. If we fall back on our accustomed writing practices, we’re not challenged and therefore aren’t likely to improve much.

I’ll throw in the example of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which Joss Whedon (and friends) created for the Web during the writers’ strike a few years back. I find it hugely entertaining, although I know some fun and tasteful people who don’t. Regardless, Whedon took a chance not only in what he wrote but in how he brought it out. He had time-tested ways to get his work in front of people; he didn’t have to do something like Dr. Horrible, but he did, and it was brilliant. (By the way, fans, this just in: the sequel tentatively goes into production this summer.)

Those are some of the whys of writing differently; following are some of the hows.

The next time you’re bored with what you’re working on, or need to get warmed up, or have time for a side project, look at one or more of these areas and choose an approach completely different from your usual. Alternatively, get together with several writer friends and take turns choosing approaches from any of the categories below. (Examples: “Outline a short story by writing down a bunch of scenes and then finding an order to put them in”; “Write a very short story longhand based on a tense opening situation”) Mojitos are optional.

While of course it’s always possible that you’ll write something that works magnificently with one of these exercises, I’d recommend caring more about what you learn from the process than about how the final version comes out. Worrying too much about the story not coming out perfectly or being saleable while trying out a new technique can make it a lot harder to really throw yourself into the experiment. As Ken Robinson says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Building your story
Some of us just start writing; others outline; others write scenes on index cards; others gradually develop sets of ideas into a coherent structure using a tool like Scrivener. Consider trying whichever method is least like the one you use now.

The kernel of your story
You may tend to start stories with an idea for an important scene, with a character, with a setting, with a plot idea, or with an initial situation. What methods have you rarely or never used to start a story?

The physical act of writing
Do you always write on a computer? Then what happens if you write longhand, or dictate into an audio recorder or voice recognition system, or try telling the story to a friend (or to yourself in the car) before writing it down? Does your style change? Is the process easier, harder, faster, slower, deeper, more unusual? Are there any unexpected advantages?

Story form
If you usually write novels, you might try a short story or two. If you write short stories, try flash, or even poetry, or just outlining a novel to see what that structure would look like. Consider writing a short stage play, radio play, or screenplay, even if it’s not in proper format, to focus more on dialog (stage), dialog and sound (radio/podcast), or sight and sound (screen).

Genre
If you always write science fiction or fantasy, try a non-speculative romance or a mainstream piece. If your stories are always full of clever talk, try writing a piece that’s mainly action. What kinds of muscles do you need to flex in these unaccustomed kinds of stories that don’t usually get much exercise?

Editing habits
If you tend to write freely and edit later, try writing something in which you concentrate on getting everything right the first time–not because this will necessarily work, but because of the different kind of focus it will create. If you always try to get everything right in the first draft, try writing more freely to see if it offers you better opportunities.

Asking “what else”?
Most importantly of all, consider more options. Many of us have a tendency, when we come to a place where we have a writing decision, to work on that decision only long enough to come up with a solution that works–one solution. Instead of settling for one, try to brainstorm five, say, even if a couple of them are a little loopy. Statistically, what’s the chance that your first idea for a character, plot turn, way of expressing something, etc. is going to be the best one you could possibly come up with? Tell yourself “Sure, that would be one good solution. And what’s a completely different one?”

My intentions here aren’t to derail your writing practices permanently, but to offer some approaches you can take to push the envelope and to develop and expand your skills. As writers, we’ll be tempted by any success to think that we need to keep doing things the way we’re already doing them. Certainly it’s sometimes possible to build a career by doing the same thing over and over, but constantly trying new angles will continue to build a writer’s skills in ways that eventually leaves stagnant writers eating our dust.

This piece is reprinted from my column at Futurismic.

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New from Luc on SFWA.org, Can’t Backspace, and Futurismic

Writing

A few new posts of mine on writing-related subjects have just appeared around the Web:

On the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America blog, my post “An Infinite Supply of Writing Prompts,” which appeared here early last week, is featured as a guest post.

My new column in my “Brain Hacks for Writers” series appears today on Futurismic; it’s called “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, a fellow member of the Codex writing group, hosts a hand-written (and doodled) guest post from me on developing ideas at her all-handwriting blog, “Can’t Backspace”

For readers who are here for the willpower and psychology of habits posts, I’m working on sub-sites that will feature only those materials, and will post details as soon as I have them.

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Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)

Handling negative emotions

A broken idea (called a “cognitive distortion” in the psychological literature) is a thought that creates problems because it’s flawed.

Some examples of broken ideas: “You always interrupt me!” (Always? Every single time?) “People think I look stupid when I dance.” (Everyone does? You can read their minds?) “I look like a mess for this interview! This is a disaster!” (As bad as the Hindenberg or Hurricane Katrina? It’s a disaster and not just an inconvenience?).

Broken ideas tend to play in loops in our minds, and this ongoing commentary often has the effect of causing trouble: disrupting work, encouraging us to act badly, or just making us miserable. I talk elsewhere on the site about how to detect broken ideas and how to repair them and provide an introduction to broken ideas, but a correspondent recently made the very good suggestion of posting examples of each type.

All-or-nothing thinking:
Looking at things as though they’re completely black or white, with no room for neutral or contrary characteristics.
“This job is the worst job I could possibly have. I hate it.”

Overgeneralization:
Taking a few examples and assuming that they describe an absolute pattern.
“My last two relationships ended badly: I must be completely incompetent at love.”

Mental filter:
Ignoring important facts to come up with a faulty conclusion.
“Mom and Dad always paid attention to you and never to me.”

Disqualifying the positive:
Ignoring anything that might get in the way of a negative judgment.
“It doesn’t matter that my boss complimented my work: since I didn’t get the promotion, I’m obviously a failure.”

Fortune telling:
Making assumptions about what will happen in the future.
“All this studying won’t help, and I’ll fail the test.”

Mind reading:
Making assumptions about what other people are thinking.
“Everybody in the audience must think I’m a complete idiot up here.”

Magnification or minimization:
Exaggerating or understating anything about a situation.
“I have to move? This is awful! This will ruin everything I have set up in my life!”

Emotional reasoning:
Assuming that something’s true because it feels like it’s true.
“I know I planned the event carefully, but I know something’s going to go wrong.”

Should statements:
Getting upset because one doesn’t have control or governance over other people’s actions, random events, or basic facts of existence.
“That jerk shouldn’t be driving so slowly in the left lane!”
“I should be able to eat cookies whenever I want to! It’s not fair that my coworkers can do that and not get fat!”

Labeling:
Describing something in a way that prevents it from being clearly seen and often makes it seem much worse than it is.
“I’m a coward and loser, and nothing’s going to change that.”

Personalization:
Assuming that a situation or event says something about oneself personally when it doesn’t.
“I didn’t win this contest–they must think I’m a terrible writer.”

Photo by 1Sock

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