Writing Right with Dmitri: Organising Your Thoughts

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Organising Your Thoughts

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I'm going to tell you a true story. One that makes me look like a complete dork. Sad, but true – I was born like this.

Back when I was about fourteen years old, we had a super English teacher, a Welsh American I'll call Mr Evans. Mr Evans had a way with words. He could read Shakespeare aloud like nobody's business. He taught us to write good grammar, and to appreciate poetry. He had a dry wit, too. His daily banter with the Class Clown, one Chico Bevilacqua1, was worth staying awake for. He teased us unmercifully, and we teased back. English class was fun

One Friday afternoon, Mr Evans informed us enthusiastically that we were going to embark on a new writing adventure. You see, we were Big Kids now, and we had to learn to write Term Papers. The Term Paper was a national requirement, and a big deal. Mr Evans mapped out the project from start to finish: topic choice, titling, research, bibliographical conventions, and standards for the finished product. I took copious notes. This sounded like something I'd enjoy doing. After forty minutes of this, class was dismissed for the week.

I ran home. I demanded immediate library access. My mother protested that this was not my library day, and I still had, surely, at least a couple of books left from my weekly ten-book haul. I explained importantly that this was a rush job. So off we went to the public library.

I returned from my foray with an armload of tomes. I knew what I wanted to write about: 'Crime and Punishment in 19th-Century England'. This was the fault of the school library, whose Classics section teemed with shocking tales by Dickens and other former crime reporters. After supper that night, I set to work reading, note-taking, and culling the most bloodcurdling factoids I could find.

'Do you know what drawing and quartering means?' I asked my sister.

'I don't want to know,' she replied. And went back to reading Freckles: a Tale of the Limberlost.

On Monday, I could hardly wait for English class. I wondered what the other students had written over the weekend. Would we get to read them aloud? I just knew Chuck Hamemrskjold would write something cool. (We shared interests, such as military history and outré science fiction.) I had my typescript all ready to go.

Imagine my surprise and chagrin when I learned that Mr Evans' tour-de-force of last Friday had been a preview. Nobody in their right mind – meaning, nobody but me – would expect a fourteen-year-old to write a term paper in a weekend. All Mr Evans wanted from us today was…a title. The bibliographies were due next week, followed by an outline the week after, and the first page the next. We had a whole month to complete this task!

Here's where it gets completely dorky on my part. I was embarrassed by this discovery. Hastily, I hid my term paper. Not for anything in the world would I have admitted to Mr Evans that I had misunderstood him, and written the whole paper already.What if I had committed some sort of literary crime? I might be debarred from writing forever. Meekly, I turned in my title. To my relief, it was accepted with a knowing grunt. (Mr Evans was familiar with the adolescent imagination.)

I proceeded to do this exercise by the book. Bibliography cards? No problem. Just copy them from the last page of the paper. Outline? Er…outline?

I mentally kicked myself. Why hadn't I thought of an outline? I might have to start over. What if my paper didn't organise itself into headers and subheaders? What a fool I was, to think I could learn to write by reading great writers. None of them said anything about outlines!

I came up with a plan. I'd treat my paper like a sample text, and write an outline of what I had written. Lo and behold, it worked! The structure of the paper emerged, neatly divided into headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings. Wow, what a discovery. I felt like Cortes, when with eagle eye, he stood wherever it was Keats didn't know he was standing.

I turned in the outline. I turned in the front page. No mistakes. Finally, I turned in the paper I had written the month before. Mr Evans gave me an A+, and said it was interesting, if a bit ghoulish. Job done.

I learned something that year. It's a good idea to pay attention to deadlines. But I learned something else – something I'm going to need tomorrow, in fact.

I learned about outlines.

How to Get Your Thoughts Together

Some of you tell me you like to use notebooks. I don't. I never have, even when I could see them. One reason is that I have always had the world's most appalling handwriting. Even I can't decipher the scribbling. On the other hand, I adore my Wordscreen. I keep notes all over the place, on Notepad pages and in Word docs. I also organise things graphically.

If you're faced with a challenging task, such as the one I'm starting tomorrow, it's useful to sketch out a map for yourself. My task is going to be to write an eighteen-page online lesson for advanced history students. It will have to teach certain skills, and draw on historical details already known to them. The task is specific, the curriculum standards are rigorous, and the deadline is extremely tight. These are the realities of modern education.

I don't have much wiggle room. The client needs what the client needs. So, it's really helpful to have an outline. The good thing is, the client thinks so, too. So tomorrow's task will be to write that outline. I love the Power Point generation. They want it in a graphic organiser.

If you don't know what a graphic organiser is, ask a teacher. Or somebody in Human Resources. I'll bet they know. Stop them before they get to pie charts. For you own sanity.

How do you organise your information? Do you draw circles? Boxes? Make bullet lists? Or just use the old-fashioned 1,2,3,A,B, C method? Do what works for you. I just hope you aren't like those Germans of old. The outlines we'd get at university were amazing. I,1,i.etc…the subparagraphs and cubclauses went on forever. Of course, this sort of thing was meat and potatoes to my German professor of Old English. He wrote his Habilitationsschrift, or tenure masterwork, in the form of a two-volume study of the preconsonantal use of the letter L in Anglo-Saxon.

This professor knew everything there was to know about this letter of the alphabet, and how it was used in the existing corpus of Altenglisch. I would like to point out, however, that his spoken use of the modern tongue was less than stellar. In fact, I couldn't understand him unless he reverted to his native German. The Germans have a name for this sort of professor. It is Fachidiot. The word Fach means subject. I leave you to figure out the rest.

I may be a dork, but I'm not a Fachidiot. I can tell a hawk from a handsaw, when the wind's in the right direction. And I occasionally learn from my mistakes. I know how to throw together an outline.

You know the main reason for starting outlines? Nope. It isn't to get yourself organised. It's to get you started. What have you been planning to write this week? A Guide Entry? A letter to a friend? Something for that Create Challenge? If your mind goes blank when you think of the topic, try an outline, map, or graphically organised sketch. Don't worry, Mr Evans won't see it. But it might start the juices flowing.

Guy Fawkes explained to foreigners.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

03.02.14 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Chico: 'Mr Evans, I don't see what's wrong with that sentence. Why can't I say, Where's them there books at?'
Mr Evans: 'Ye gods and little fishes! I know this is Pittsburgh, but must you people talk like you just got off the immigrant boat?
And etc.

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