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There’s Always Another Way to Write It

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

In Star Wars: Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn quips “There’s always a bigger fish.” Admittedly he’s wrong, because since there aren’t an infinite number of fish in the universe, so one fish or group of fish has to be the biggest. And I’m probably wrong too when I say “there’s always another way to write it”–but as with the fish thing, it appears that it’s a rule that’s always accurate.

What this means for writers is that there are hidden solutions to almost any writing problem.

Much, Much More Flexible Than We Thought
There’s a book called Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language by a brilliant but strange guy named Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter wrote this entire 832-page tome about the problems of translating a single pretty-good-but-not-amazing 16th century French poem. The thing is, like many decent poems, “A une Da-moyselle malade” (“To a Sick Young Lady”) has a very specific meter, rhyming scheme, interplay of meanings, etc. Since English, while closely related, is definitely not French, it’s impossible to accomplish everything the original poem accomplishes in an English translation … or is it? What Hofstadter goes on to show, with examples from a wide variety of translations by friends and colleagues, is that if you try hard enough, you can come up with a way to manage almost anything you want with language. This is especially true in English, with its enormous vocabulary.

I don’t know if this is rocking your world the way it did mine: maybe the full power of this fact doesn’t hit without 1) reading through the book, 2) becoming convinced that there’s something that simply can’t be accomplished in English, and then 3) reading an example that does the impossible thing and three other things at once. The moment where Hofstadter really got his point across to me wasn’t in the translations, though: it was when, about 200 pages in, he started talking about using nonsexist language while also steering clear of the awkward but more respectful “he or she” (or “she or he,” as I tend to write it). If you’ve ever tried to write nonfiction with these restrictions, you may have a reaction something like mine: that’s a great idea, but it’s next to impossible.

Then Hofstadter points out that he has written the entire book in non-sexist language without ever using “he or she”–and I had never even noticed! As difficult as that job sometimes seems, Hofstadter can do it so comfortably that it’s completely invisible.

I can’t change that: I need it
I was corresponding with a writer friend recently about a very engaging book he’s writing, and we were talking about a lump of text early on, an important quotation. I suggested that the text didn’t work well as is, and he agreed, but said “I will have to split it up, but I can’t really alter it … I need it for the end.”

Now, “need” is a red flag word for me in everyday life, writing aside, because it often indicates a “broken idea” or “cognitive distortion”, which is to say the kind of thinking that generally doesn’t get us anywhere and makes us miserable. In writing, there’s a similar issue: we may get it in our heads that something has to be a particular way without ever questioning that assumption. In my friend’s case, it’s entirely possible that it’s best for that chunk of text to remain exactly as it is, but does it need to? Our options as writers are practically infinite–is it possible there’s really no alternative whatsoever that still works with the entire story if he were to change that text?

This is the kind of thing that we can tend to get caught up in when we’re writing: “I know that part is kind of boring, but Ihave to get that information in so that people will understand the rest of the story” or “It would be great if character x had a change of heart here, but she isn’t like that,” or even simply “I wish I could try that, but that’s not how the story’s supposed to go.

Alexander the Great and Indiana Jones
It’s easy to make ourselves think that some piece of our book–a character, an event, the way events are presented, a description, dialog, whatever–has to be the way that it is, but the fact of the matter is that virtually anything could be changed in a way that doesn’t harm or even improves the story. This doesn’t mean that we have to rethink everything we come up with, of course, but it does mean that any time we find ourselves obstructed by a decision we’ve made or a chunk of writing we’ve done, it helps to step away from that and think for a minute about the other ways we could tackle the same thing. If it doesn’t seem possible, it’s often worth actually giving an alternative a try to see if it somehow works out anyway. There is virtually always a different word, a different character twist, a different event that can do what we want it to do if we work hard enough to find it. And practicing this is practice writing differently, which gives us flexibility and fluidity and options.

These kinds of possibilities are a challenge to us to write better, to do more things at once in our writing. Frankly, my feeling is that we need all the advantages we can get. As the writing world gets harder and harder to predict from a business perspective, the only advantage we can really control much is how good we’re getting at writing itself. Being able to cut the Gordian knot (Alexander the Great) or shoot the scary-looking guy with the sword (Indiana Jones) is a good skill to have, and the only time it’s not available to us is when we’re facing that one, biggest fish–at which point, honestly, translating French poetry wouldn’t have saved us anyway.

This was supposed to be a sword-vs.-whip fight, but Indiana Jones makes my point for me

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How to Turn Complex Choices into Hard Numbers

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I was recently struck by writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau‘s recommendation for a way to choose between a number of possible business opportunities, and I realized immediately that it was applicable not just to business decisions, but to any choice that involves a lot of competing possibilities with different pros and cons. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a useful one if you want to take a lot of possibilities and end up with a single score for each one so you can decide which is best.

In a nutshell, what you can do is figure out what factors are important to you and rate each idea or possibility on a scale of 1-5 for each of those factors. You can use paper, a word processor, a spreadsheet, or another medium. What you get in the end is a grid, kind of like this:

The 5-point scale
Why a 5-point scale? Because it’s detailed enough to be able to distinguish between levels like “terrible,” “bad,” “OK,” “good,” and “great” while not so detailed that it’s difficult to decide what value to assign. The process isn’t supposed to be surgically precise: it’s just meant to show us which way the wind is blowing. Our quick, subjective impressions of each item will generally be good enough information to provide the answers we’re looking for.

Keep in mind that 5 always means “best,” not necessarily “highest.” For instance, Hawaii has a 1 for “cost” not because the cost is low, but on the contrary because the cost is high and therefore merits the worst rating.

While I think a 5-point scale is especially handy, you can use any scale you want (say, 1-3 or 0-10, etc.). Just be sure to use the same scale for every factor.

Instant insight
You can see right away how this approach is handy. For instance, Hawaii might sound great, but when you factor in the very high cost and the lower amount of relaxation you experience because of airports, reservations, and all the rest, it doesn’t stack up as well (using this method) as the other two options.

Weighty questions
With that said, there’s a major problem with the system as Guillebeau and many other people use it, which is that it treats all considerations as equally important. In many cases, that works out fine; as I say, we’re just trying to get a general direction. In other cases, though, it can be … well, less than ideal. Consider the following example:

Using this approach, it’s easy to see that it’s better to dive without a parachute than with one–except that … you know … it isn’t.

So how do we fix this problem? By using weightings!

What are weightings? They’re just a way of adding up or averaging information proportionate to other information, in this case to information about how important each item is. By introducing weightings, we can let our grid reflect our priorities. Consider this new version of the skydiving grid:

Our totals have changed completely, and they shouldn’t be compared to totals from any other grid, but they tell a clear story: even for this obviously danger-loving individual, skydiving with a parachute is a much better choice than skydiving without.

Of course, using weightings is more complicated than not using weightings, especially in terms of calculations, because you have to multiply each rating by its weighting before you add things up. If you don’t want to get technical, I’d like to invite you to skip down to the picture of the kitten now, and I’ll mention that I can probably upload a template that won’t require you to do any of the technical work if enough people want it.

If you don’t mind getting technical and are following along in Excel, here’s how I set up the spreadsheet so that the total would use the weighting values I specified:

The little $ signs, in case you haven’t used them in Excel before, mean “use the row (or column) I specify even if I copy this formula somewhere else.” By referring to B$4, C$4, and D$4 instead of B4, C4, and D4, we can copy the formula from F5 into all of the rows below, even if we add a hundred options, without having to change the formula.

OK, it’s safe to read on! No more technical stuff!
photo by Merlijn Hoek

Just useful; not miraculous
Weighting isn’t perfect either, of course. It’s hard to put hard numbers on the relative importance of things like “environmental friendliness” and “good for the kids,” say, and if we just put the highest importance on everything, then we might as well not be using weightings at all. Also, if we have two different but related factors (like “general aesthetics” and “goes with the furniture”), then both of those add together to give them a weight that’s probably higher than intended–although if we’re using weightings, this can be fixed by cutting both weights roughly in half because the two are in a sense working together. This same problem comes up if we don’t use weightings, but in that situation, there’s no good way to fix it, so that’s another point in favor of using weightings instead of unweighted ratings.

I don’t want to lose sight of the benefit here: the amazing thing is that you can take any number of choices–just a handful or hundreds–and evaluate them all at the same time. There are other ways to make these kinds of choices, like filtering and sequencing (see “How Fewer Choices Make for Better Decisions“), but using weighted ratings makes it possible to evaluate them all at once and to tweak the decision-making process afterward to see how that changes things. (Because you can always decide to add or change your ratings or alter their weights, and in a spreadsheet or similar solution, those changes will immediately show new scores.)

Using your results
If you’re using a spreadsheet, you can sort by totals when you’re done (in Excel, highlight all of your data, including the choice names and the totals, then choose Data > Sort) so that your choices are then listed in the order from best to worst, according to your spreadsheet.

You don’t have to then make the choice at the top just because it got the highest score: again, this process is just a way to put things in perspective. However, that perspective can be invaluable for figuring out what to actually do next.

My example
I put together a spreadsheet for myself of a few of the many, many speaking and writing projects and possibilities I’ve started or considered, and set it up using weighted ratings, as I’ve described above. Having a technical background and being very interested in squeezing every last drop of meaning out of my information, I made some further enhancements, which you can see here. Note the little red corners: those mean that I can hover over the factor with my mouse to see details of how I should rate, so that I can assign ratings consistently. I’ve also used conditional formatting to highlight better and worse information with different colors. (You can click on the image to see it at full size.)

If you’d like a copy of my template for the grid above, please comment here. I’ll put something fairly user-friendly together and post it if there’s a need.

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How Fewer Choices Make for Better Decisions

Strategies and goals

“Overwhelmed” isn’t a very good state of mind in which to make decisions. When we have too many things competing for our attention at the same time, it becomes difficult or impossible to compare them all to one another at the same time. It’s like having a whole classroom of kids calling out answers, or a dozen different messages coming up at once on the computer: if there’s no time to stop and go through the items one by one, we may be able to pick out useful things here and there, but we can’t evaluate all the choices effectively. At this point, habit tends to take over. If the habit in question is a good one, that’s great, but in areas where we’re trying to make life changes, this is generally bad news.

The way to make better choices in these situations is to narrow things down, to get the choices to a small enough number that we can make an intelligent, considered decision about which to pick. Two good ways to do this are sequencing and filtering.

Filtering: honing in
If you know certain things about the choice you want to make–for instance, that you want the job applicant to have sales experience, or that you want to pick a menu item that’s heart healthy–you can filter by putting aside or ignoring all the options that don’t have the quality you’re looking for. Once you’ve done that, you can filter or sequence further to get an even smaller set of options, or if the group is small enough, choose directly from the filtered selections.

The reason filtering is often better than evaluating items one by one is that it’s easy to get distracted or preoccupied with less-important factors when you have a lot of different criteria to consider. Going through options one by one, you might end up hiring someone with a really good cover letter but no sales experience, or eating the delicious-looking fried food platter that caught your eye.

When to use filtering
Filtering is mainly useful for situations when you have specific, definite needs. If sales experience isn’t essential, for instance, then filtering by it could make you ignore the best candidate for the job. In cases where you can’t come up with rules to apply to narrow down selections, sequencing may be a better choice than filtering.

The exceptions are for less-important decisions or decisions you have to make very quickly. If you want to make a good decision but don’t necessarily have the time to make the best possible decision, or if the time involved in considering every possible option isn’t worth it for the decision you’re making, then filtering is still useful even with criteria that aren’t entirely absolute.

Sequencing: one thing at a time
Sequencing means taking the options one after the other and considering each of them. You can consider each item individually and pick out only your top choices, or compare each item to the item after it and choose between each pair. With the first approach, you should end up with a much smaller set of options that you can either consider as a group or sequence or filter to narrow down more. With the second approach, you’ll already have your final choice when you’re done going through the list.

Sequencing is also very useful when you have a set of choices that aren’t numerous enough to be overwhelming, but that are difficult to choose from. Comparing each item to the next and carrying along the “winner” of each comparison makes it possible to focus attention on just the differences between two choices.

Whether you use filtering or sequencing, narrowing down choices is a good defense against feeling overwhelmed by options, and a good way to serve your goals rather than serving the habits you’re trying to break.

Photo by ZeHawk

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