Russell Bither-Terry, Voter Engagement Advocate for Oregon Secretary of State, reflects on working at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center to bring you tips for clear, concise writing.
Two Hats Are Better Than One
by: Russell Bither-Terry – LinkedIn and Twitter
In his blurb introducing my first few pieces for this series, Kent wrote that one of the key things he learned from his sessions at the UNC Writing Center was “writing a first draft without constraints.” We hear that advice a lot: just write something now and then worry about fixing it later. And for good reason.
One of the challenges of writing is that it requires different things of us at different times. Early in the process we need to let ourselves just get out drafts down so that we have something to improve—we need to keep our inhibitions in check and just let ourselves figure out what we’re trying to say.
But late in the process—right before submitting a grant, report, important email, whatever—those same inhibitions are our friends. They keep us from getting facts wrong, from advancing dumb arguments, and making typos and grammar errors that might look unprofessional.
In other words, the ability to notice what’s wrong with your writing is really important but can also keep you from writing at all. Harrumph!
Creative Hat Meet Critical Hat
Writing requires creativity and critical thinking. Sometimes there’s a tension between them and they do a little tug-of-war that keeps anything useful from happening. One solution: avoid doing both at once.
Sometimes I’d describe it to my students like this: I have two hats. One is my creative hat. The other one is my critical hat.
When I’m wearing my creative hat I just put down the ideas as they come without trying to judge them. Of course, many times I will immediately have a judgment (“but couldn’t someone just respond by saying…?”). Great, I write that down too and keep moving. The point is to just figure out what I have to say. I’ll figure out what’s worth keeping later on.
Often when brainstorming people say, “there are no bad ideas.” That’s silly. Of course there are bad ideas. Maybe most of our ideas will be bad. The point is to separate the act of having ideas and expressing them through language from the act of judging those ideas and the quality of the language used to express them.
My creative hat lets me write faster. Since I’m just generating text and worrying about fixing it later I don’t go back and re-write a sentence ten times right as I’m writing it.
Critical Hat Cleans Up
At some point it will be time to switch hats. After I put on The Critical Hat I notice where the passive voice was used unnecessarily by me. I notice the superfluous, even sesquipedalian utilization of polysyllabic vocabulary. I notice facts to double check, problems with organization and flow, stupid homonym airs, and arguments that just don’t quite hold up. This helps me build a list of writing revision tasks to start working through.
Just as I can’t help but have some critical thoughts while wearing my creative hat, the critical process may lead to more creativity. The process of identifying a problem with organization or argument may inspire me to figure out what I’m really trying to say.
This is a good thing. One option is to just swap back to my creative hat and try to capture all those new ideas. Another is to keep wearing my critical hat, but to keep a running list of those new ideas. The list can be my starting point when I switch back to my creative hat.
For something like an email it might just: be creative hat, critical hat, send, but for important writing I have to switch between the two hats multiple times. Instead of a tug-of-war, I see it like a game of Ping-Pong between Creative Hat Russell and Critical Hat Russell. They just keep bouncing a piece of writing back and forth until it’s good enough.