Happy Norwegian Independence Day! I grew up in a little town west of Seattle called Poulsbo, a once tiny Norwegian fishing village on Puget Sound full of Scandinavian immigrants who made their living on the water, where, when I was a kid, May 17 and Viking Fest were bigger than the 4th of July!
And on a more somber note, tomorrow, May 18, is the 39th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State’s Cascade Range. Though my immediate family and I were not directly affected by the eruption—my uncle 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, actually had more ash fall on his car than we did living only 250 miles north and west of the mountain—it is, nevertheless, one of those events I will never forget, the memory of which acts as a continual reminder of how little control we human beings really have over this tiny planet we call home.
And now, on to more storytelling . . .
Strategic Thinking: How Thorough Topic Analysis Can Build a Strong Foundation for Effective Writing
Have you ever picked up a book or a magazine article that looked interesting, then started to read it only to find the author was more interested in preaching than storytelling? This can happen all too easily if we’re not careful. Most writers have something important to say, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, but it is just as important to think strategically about our subject matter lest we become so immersed in whatever issue we’re tackling that our story gets lost in the argument. Writing can change minds and hearts, just as performance drama can, but beware of biting off more than you can comfortably chew and letting the topic eclipse the story rather than letting the story illuminate the topic.
What Is Strategic Thinking?
Let me give you an example that goes back to my librarian days, when one of my biggest tasks was to help undergraduates create research strategies that would allow them to successfully write a paper or complete another project that would fulfill an assignment on their syllabus.
Librarian: What can I help you with today?
Student: I need to write a five-page paper, and my professor wants us to use four scholarly sources.
Librarian: Okay. I can help you with that. What is your topic?
Librarian: That’s a pretty big topic for only a five-page paper, so let’s try to narrow that down a bit. What is it about pollution that interests you?
Student: Nothing. I just need to write about pollution.
Librarian (trying again): The thing is, entire encyclopedia have been written on this huge, umbrella topic, so you will need to identify some part of the topic that you can address in only five pages. For example . . .
This is where the librarian goes on to help the student think strategically about the topic of pollution, which leads to a subtopic narrow enough for a 5-page research paper:
Such topic analysis can build a strong foundation for effective writing, and without it, writers can flounder in a mass of too much information. Smaller and narrower can prove more effective and manageable than bigger and broader, allowing the writer to write really well on a very specific topic—or on only one aspect of a much larger topic.
Strategic Thinking in Fiction
This same kind of strategic thinking can also help when writing fiction. For example, let’s look at the topic of pollution. Perhaps, like me, you’ve seen the commercial on T.V. in which two young men are pitching their plastic bracelets made from recycled plastics and glass recovered from the Pacific Ocean. These two surfers tell a brief story of how they were on a surfing vacation and discovered just how big plastic pollution is in the ocean and what they are trying to do about it. They are telling their personal story—and it is a compelling one. What other personal story might you write about the same topic?
Next time, we’ll look at Aristotle’s Three Unities: Action, Time, and Place.