Writing with Russ: Webbing

Posted on September 2, 2014

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Russell Bither-Terry reflects on his experience working at the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center to bring you tips for clear, concise writing. Whether you are an MPA student or a city manager, Russell’s tips can help you in your everyday writing. 



by Russell Bither-Terry, September 2, 2014

Today we’ll look at a brainstorming strategy called webbing.

Many writing strategies deal with taking a draft and making it better. But how to get that initial draft? One option is to let yourself write what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.” Just keep writing until you have a bunch of your ideas in sprawling prose of uneven quality. Then see what you have and start editing it to make it better. As we saw, the reverse outline can be helpful for imposing order upon such creative chaos.

What if you’d like to have an outline before you start? Some people write the Roman numeral “I” on the top of a sheet of paper and proceed to outline their entire text down to IV(R)(2)(d)(ii). That’s fine, and can make the actual writing phase much easier. But it requires that you know what your main points are and in what order you want to put them. There are ways to do this that don’t require you to keep everything in your head, and webbing is one of my favorites. This video explains how it works:




When I was a tutor I used this a lot with students who needed help with brainstorming. I like that it lets a writer just dump a bunch of stuff (ideas, claims, evidence, whatever) onto a page without making any immediate decisions about what to keep vs. cut or how to organize the points.

614575_oI think of it like this: With a reverse outline you’re taking apart something you’ve already built and then figuring out how you want to put it back together. With webbing you’re throwing all the pieces you have lying around on the table and seeing what you can make with them. So basically you’re MacGyver, but with words and ideas.

Webbing lets you play with the pieces of a text-to-be until you find an arrangement likely to work for both you and your reader. The use of the word “play” is deliberate. Think of it as experimenting with ways to put Legos together until you’ve built something with which you’re happy.

And if webbing is an utter disaster? Maybe it’s an off day. Maybe it’s the topic. Or maybe webbing just isn’t your thing. There are plenty of other ways to brainstorm. But by trying it you’re learning about yourself as a writer—and that’s valuable whatever you do or don’t accomplish with one particular text.

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