Tag Archives: storyboarding

From the archives: In Praise of Zero Drafts

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Photo courtesy SXC.

Today’s post is a repeat of a popular post from last August related to the joys of drafts that precede the actual structuring of a nonfiction story. Enjoy!

In Praise of Zero Drafts

I’ve been told by freelance writers, when I describe to them my approach to writing, that I write like an editor. Perhaps I do.

One time I was comparing notes with one of my writers, and she told me that producing copy is never an issue for her—but she chokes on editing her own work, to the point that she hires an editor friend to polish her work before she submits it for publication. I, on the other hand, typically have to squeeze out my first draft. But once I have something out on paper, I can edit, rearrange and manipulate the content to my heart’s content—with my own writing, I feel that everything is negotiable once I have a draft to play with.

If you tend to choke on producing early drafts, learning how to write a “zero draft” may be a path out of writer’s block. A zero draft is what you write before you write the rough draft. It’s a no-structure, no-holds-barred, no-one-is-gonna-see-this brain-dump that lets you exorcise the demons (or angels) of this particular story, so you can see what you have and begin structuring your material. It’s the functional equivalent to dumping a box of Legos out on a table to see how many pieces (and what kind) you have before you begin building something.

In their amazing work, “Coaching Writers,” Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry recommend that newsroom editors working with writers who can’t figure out where to begin their stories to write a zero draft in the form of a short note to the editor, describing what information they gathered during their field reporting. The technique gets the focus off wrestling with the structure of the story, and pours it into a format that everyone understands—the personal letter.

For example,

“Dear Liz,

I went to report at the Democratic National Convention, but got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam. I stepped out of my car and talked to Denver commuters about how the convention is impacting their city. Some people loved it and the money it was bringing in, some people hated how it brought the traffic and city services to a screeching halt, but everyone had an opinion about what a mega-event like this one does to a city the size of Denver. By the time I got to the convention, I felt as if this was the story, and not what was going on at the convention center.

Sincerely, A. Writer.”

In just a few sentences, our writer has identified a story line, key points of interest (perhaps useful in the lead or nut graph) and even a bit of a tentative structure (perhaps point-counterpoint, or issue-by-issue debates on the impact of the event?). If he or she had been trying to cook up a great first-person sight-and-sound lead, he/she might have lost track of the other details, or how they would support the flow of the story once their lead anecdote was over.

Another zero draft technique, as I alluded to earlier, is the brain-dump. This could be a list of anecdotes, facts, quotes, descriptions, etc., that you found gripping or which you can’t get out of your head in relation to your story. Do not try to write a lead, a nut graph or transitions that will survive into the rough draft. Just get what you know on paper.

Put your zero draft away long enough to do a load of laundry, mow the yard, drink a beer—whatever—then come back to it. You need time away to let your brain work on the structural part subconsciously. When you’re ready, review your draft, circling repeating patterns, good bits of description or exposition, information that naturally works as a transition, belongs in the lead, etc. You can use your notes on the zero draft to create an outline/mindmap/storyboard for the piece, or you can just refer to it as you do your first real draft—since now have now made your thinking visible, you can sculpt it to serve the needs of your assignment.

Another technique that can get you over the what-to-write hump is known as “scaffolding.” This is useful when you have a pretty good idea what to say but you’re not as sure where to jump into the story. Roy Peter Clark discussed how he used the scaffolding technique recently to write an article about the late Tim Russert; it’s a great way to acknowledge that your story will change from draft to draft, and to write your way into the story.

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Writing Crap & Shitty First Drafts

English professor and writing teacher Elizabeth Kleinfeld holds forth about the benefits of a zero draft on her revisionspiral blog.

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing

Another take on zero drafts, from the perspective of academic writing.

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft

This brief article, posted at uliveandlearn.com, shows some ways you can use analog paper-based methods to repurpose your zero draft as a story map or visual outline of your work.

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From the archives: 3 Fun Ways to Map Your Story Ideas

(Note: This post, originally uploaded last August, has proven to be among the most visited of all content on Write Livelihood. Hope you enjoy the re-post. –Liz)

I read the interview anthology The New New Journalism a couple of years ago, and one of the many things that struck me while reading it was how consistently the writers interviewed for the book said they didn’t use an “outline” when organizing the mass of material to write long-form narrative nonfiction. Just as consistently, immediately after that declaration, the writer would describe how they DID organize the material—which was frequently a list of topics, high points in the material, turning points in their pursuit of the story—and their approach would basically be an outline in everything but name.

That’s what reminded me how much most of us, writers included, hate our 8th grade English teachers. In the pursuit of teaching us how to write the perfect five-paragraph theme, he or she was often the one who introduced us to the “outline”—that Roman numeral bit of antiquity that works a whole lot better after the piece is finished than while we’re trying to organize it. (I remember learning how to do an outline by studying the structure of finished writings, most often by professional writers, which just seems to buttress my point.)

So outlines are rarely the tool of choice when organizing material, but there are alternatives to a) making a list (and obsessing over it way more than twice) or b) just plunging into writing without structuring the material, which is a little like trying to do a do-it-yourself home improvement project without measuring anything.

I’ve found 3 structuring techniques that go beyond the humble list method, give your writing a visual boost, and can even prepare your finished piece for a world beyond print.

Tool #1: The Mind Map

Popularized by Tony Buzan, mind-mapping has spawned a cottage industry of software that will take your thoughts and provide a visual display of relationships between ideas and where the linkages are. It’s sort of like a 3-D list.

Mind mapping in action (image courtesy SXC).

Mind mapping in action (image courtesy SXC).

Here’s a link on Tony’s site to a mind-map of a concept from a book by Edward De Bono, Six Thinking Hats.

And here’s a very interesting Flash-based instructional mind-map on how to use mind maps to write an essay.

A related type of mapping is Idea Mapping, based on a book of the same name by Jamie Nast. Her blog has great examples of conceptual maps from a variety of contexts, including maps of books.

The greatest advantage of mind-mapping a nonfiction story is that it makes the whole process less linear, and helps you see multiple relationships between topics and sub-topics in your story. As an editor, I often mind-map as I brainstorm story assignments for my writers; as a writer, it’s been an interesting way to supplement the “list method” of organizing my stories.

Tool #2: Storyboarding

I heard the wonderful journalism instructor Jacqui Banaszynski lecture three years ago at an editor’s conference, and she asserted that the generation coming of age write now has a far more visual, cinematic imagination. She reported that her college students at Mizzou have responded well when she asked them to plot out their nonfiction stories by conceiving each element in a narrative as a “scene.”

Taking that concept one step further is using storyboards to structure one’s writing. Borrowed from the world of filmmaking, storyboards force you to do several things with your writing:

¨ You have to determine a story arc to your material

¨ You have to be explicit about what point of view you are using in your writing, and how and why you shift it during the story

¨ You need to conceive of anecdotes or reportage as scenes, with a beginning, middle and end, that serve to drive the larger story forward

¨ You have to pay attention to the visual and kinesthetic elements of the scenes you are recounting

As one might expect, fiction writers have discovered how useful storyboarding is to their writing. For nonfiction writers, storyboards can help keep a large “cast of characters” organized, reveal gaps in information, uncover points where lesser storylines threaten to derail the main thrust of your article or book, and provide an easy at-a-glance reference for a long manuscript.

This newsletter article from a romance writers group discusses several ways to create a storyboard for a written piece. Lightning Bug’s article on storyboarding is also good, especially because it demonstrates how simple the pictures can be and still be effective. Frankly, spending time creating beautiful graphics isn’t the point—if you can understand what you sketched later, that’s enough!

Tool #3: Wordle/Tag Clouds

One last tool that can help you see patterns in your research is the concept of the tag cloud, which provides a visual representation of the frequency of words or topics in a given piece of writing. Popularized by blogs, tag clouds can be an aid to a user’s search of a site—if a tag that matches their search is big enough, they may be enticed deeper into an online site.

For those of you unfamiliar with tag clouds, here’s one from my delicious.com feed.

A tag cloud on the social bookmarking site Delicious.

A tag cloud on the social bookmarking site Delicious.

Wordle is another interesting tool for finding patterns or repeating elements in your writing. It creates word clouds that look and function much the same as tag clouds.

Here’s an image via Wordle that was created from a newsletter article I wrote a while back about persistence and creativity.

Wordle tag cloud

Wordle tag cloud

My suggestion for using Wordle to structure your story is to do a free-form brain dump on your material, up to 500 words long, then drop the piece into Wordle and see what patterns emerge.

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Cool Tools: 3 Fun Ways to Map Your Story Ideas

I read the interview anthology The New New Journalism a couple of years ago, and one of the many things that struck me while reading it was how consistently the writers interviewed for the book said they didn’t use an “outline” when organizing the mass of material to write long-form narrative nonfiction. Just as consistently, immediately after that declaration, the writer would describe how they DID organize the material—which was frequently a list of topics, high points in the material, turning points in their pursuit of the story—and their approach would basically be an outline in everything but name.

That’s what reminded me how much most of us, writers included, hate our 8th grade English teachers. In the pursuit of teaching us how to write the perfect five-paragraph theme, he or she was often the one who introduced us to the “outline”—that Roman numeral bit of antiquity that works a whole lot better after the piece is finished than while we’re trying to organize it. (I remember learning how to do an outline by studying the structure of finished writings, most often by professional writers, which just seems to buttress my point.)

So outlines are rarely the tool of choice when organizing material, but there are alternatives to a) making a list (and obsessing over it way more than twice) or b) just plunging into writing without structuring the material, which is a little like trying to do a do-it-yourself home improvement project without measuring anything.

I’ve found 3 structuring techniques that go beyond the humble list method, give your writing a visual boost, and can even prepare your finished piece for a world beyond print.

Tool #1: The Mind Map

Popularized by Tony Buzan, mind-mapping has spawned a cottage industry of software that will take your thoughts and provide a visual display of relationships between ideas and where the linkages are. It’s sort of like a 3-D list.

Here’s a link on Tony’s site to a mind-map of a concept from a book by Edward De Bono, Six Thinking Hats.

And here’s a very interesting Flash-based instructional mind-map on how to use mind maps to write an essay.

A related type of mapping is Idea Mapping, based on a book of the same name by Jamie Nast. Her blog has great examples of conceptual maps from a variety of contexts, including maps of books.

The greatest advantage of mind-mapping a nonfiction story is that it makes the whole process less linear, and helps you see multiple relationships between topics and sub-topics in your story. As an editor, I often mind-map as I brainstorm story assignments for my writers; as a writer, it’s been an interesting way to supplement the “list method” of organizing my stories.

Tool #2: Storyboarding

I heard the wonderful journalism instructor Jacqui Banaszynski lecture three years ago at an editor’s conference, and she asserted that the generation coming of age write now has a far more visual, cinematic imagination. She reported that her college students at Mizzou have responded well when she asked them to plot out their nonfiction stories by conceiving each element in a narrative as a “scene.”

Taking that concept one step further is using storyboards to structure one’s writing. Borrowed from the world of filmmaking, storyboards force you to do several things with your writing:

¨ You have to determine a story arc to your material

¨ You have to be explicit about what point of view you are using in your writing, and how and why you shift it during the story

¨ You need to conceive of anecdotes or reportage as scenes, with a beginning, middle and end, that serve to drive the larger story forward

¨ You have to pay attention to the visual and kinesthetic elements of the scenes you are recounting

As one might expect, fiction writers have discovered how useful storyboarding is to their writing. For nonfiction writers, storyboards can help keep a large “cast of characters” organized, reveal gaps in information, uncover points where lesser storylines threaten to derail the main thrust of your article or book, and provide an easy at-a-glance reference for a long manuscript.

This newsletter article from a romance writers group discusses several ways to create a storyboard for a written piece. Lightning Bug’s article on storyboarding is also good, especially because it demonstrates how simple the pictures can be and still be effective. Frankly, spending time creating beautiful graphics isn’t the point—if you can understand what you sketched later, that’s enough!

Tool #3: Wordle/Tag Clouds

One last tool that can help you see patterns in your research is the concept of the tag cloud, which provides a visual representation of the frequency of words or topics in a given piece of writing. Popularized by blogs, tag clouds can be an aid to a user’s search of a site—if a tag that matches their search is big enough, they may be enticed deeper into an online site.

For those of you unfamiliar with tag clouds, here’s one from my delicious.com feed.

Wordle is another interesting tool for finding patterns or repeating elements in your writing. It creates word clouds that look and function much the same as tag clouds.

Here’s an image via Wordle that was created from a newsletter article I wrote a while back about persistence and creativity.

My suggestion for using Wordle to structure your story is to do a free-form brain dump on your material, up to 500 words long, then drop the piece into Wordle and see what patterns emerge.

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