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Ant Smith
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How to write about anything

Friday 6th January 2017 1:00am

Constructing long-form works.

Setting out to write a book can be pretty daunting. How do you get from having no words at all to the thirty thousand or more you need for a 'book' (rather than a pamphlet, a blog, a status or a tweet)? How can you be sure when starting out you're going to be able to get to the end without running out of things to say? What if you do get to the end and the bloody thing just makes no sense??

The answer of course is to create a structure, a framework. This is particularly useful when writing nonfiction as then you naturally get your contents listing. Imagine, if you can think of six main sections of ten chapters apiece you then only need to write five hundred words for each chapter and the job is done.

If you have a heading, writing 500 words is pretty easy. Even if you have to write 60 of them to make a full book it's just a matter of time - it's a certainty that you can get there.

So writing a 30,000 word book is easy, if only you can think of 60 different things to say about the subject.

NOTE: All these numbers are just illustrative. It doesn't have to be 6 sections, 60 chapters, 30000 words etc, it's just easier to talk specifics!

Thinking of 60 different things to say about the subject might be a little tricksy, but certainly not impossible - especially since you probably know the subject somewhat given you're intending to write a book. It will be really hard though to ensure that each chapter is in the right section, makes sense given what has gone before, doesn't jump the gun regards what's coming up, is distinct and doesn't repeat stuff from other chapters needlessly.

So it would be really helpful to have a technique, or tool, that can work at an abstract level and allow you to create a coherent structure. If you can do that, then you're free to write the individual chapters piecemeal, with no need at all to worry about other details. Without a strong structure long-form writing is really hard because you need to keep all the detail of the entire work in your mind all the time to be sure what you're currently working on will fit in. With a strong structure you can focus right in on just the next, small, chunk that needs writing.

So I've made just such a tool.

CAUTION: try not to love or hate this. Don't take it too seriously. Don't be outraged by the idea that writing can be formulated. Don't feel like you must comply with the tool or what it tells you. Play with it. Try it. Use it as long as it's useful. Then throw it away. If you can't find all of your answers with this, I can guarantee it is the tool that has failed you - not you failing yourself.

Firstly, some context, background and principles

How to understand anything at all

Writing about a concept (a thing or an idea) is essentially just an exercise in explaining it to other people. Therefore to work out how to write about it, you need to frame exactly how you understand it. The GRA4AD8 tool I'm describing here is one way of doing that, of framing your understanding. Before getting into all the detail let's take a look at it:

Venn diagram of the universal domain.

Venn diagram of the universal domain.

You can see there are 3 overlapping circles (orange, blue, green) inside of a big white rectangle and where the circles overlap they interfere with each other creating a range of segments of varying colours. The colours are of no consequence, they simply let us see the 8 different regions that the overlapping circles create - it is these regions, and the differences between them that are the key to creating the framework of understanding. But before considering the interferences and the individual regions we need to get an idea of what the basic 4 shapes are all about.

The Green Circle represents an individual human being. Remember I said that writing about a concept is really a matter of one human (author) explaining stuff to other humans (readers). This in inescapable, there is always a human element in any writing. Therefore before anything else, we know that some part(s) of the writing must address the human. Thinking about a concept and an individual will lead us to consider what instructions and advice we can write about; bringing a practical useful edge to the work.

The Orange Circle represents the physical world. I include this in the model because it is where we will find the real things we are writing about; or else it is the agency by which we make use of the ideas that we're discussing. Thinking about a concept in reference to the real world prompts us to consider things like how it is constructed, the development history, geeky concerns, research, applications.

The Blue Circle represents the abstract world of our minds, spirits or fantasies. This is where we find the ideas that we may be writing about; or else it is where we appreciate the effects of the things we are writing about. Thinking about a concept in reference to the abstract world throws up questions about its impact on culture and society, how different communities relate to the concept (e.g. the infamous fear that cameras can steal souls).

The White Rectangle represents the totality of 'everything'. Any body of writing is limited, or bounded, or focussed upon a specific slice of a concern. We rarely attempt to cover everything possible - perhaps the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Wikipedia attempt to cover everything but they of course fail. The white region represents what is not explored. I include it because very often it is helpful to indicate the boundaries of the work - this helps the reader to focus on what is presented. The universe of the concern does not interfere with the worlds or the individual in the way that the circles do, it simply contains them.

It perhaps starts to become clear how the model helps us to structure a nonfiction exploration.

We already see that somehow we have to explore:

  • What we are not covering

  • The relationship of the thing or idea with the real world

  • The relationship of the idea or thing with our abstract world

  • What the thing or idea means to humanity

This in itself is a nascent structure. I can look at any concept in these four ways and immediately start to construct a nonfiction to explore it. For example I could write about the physical characteristics of a photographic sensor (the resolution) moving on to discuss how much simpler it is for the individual than film ever was but then bemoaning that these days the images captured hardly ever get printed and how we no longer sit down with family and friends to flip through photo albums. This off-the-cuff treatment presents the limit (sensors only), the tangible (sensor characteristics), the individual (ease of use) and the intangible (changing family habits). Without this structuring tool I could so easily have just blabbered on forever about the geeky elements of the technology, forgetting to talk about the impact on people as individuals and communities. Already I am equipped to ensure my writing is more balanced and engaging.

But it would be hard to stretch the writing to true long-form of many thousands of words with just a four factor structure and where each area of consideration is only related by the core concept. The emergent structure can become much richer (supporting longer writing) by turning now to an understanding of how these basic concerns interact and interfere with each other.

So let's describe the 4 interference regions in the tool:

(click or tap any table row to enlarge)

SocietyWe impose our abstract ideas upon the concrete world to create things like society, religion, schools etc. New things (nuclear bombs) change our abstract world (cold war). New ideas (online shopping) change the concrete world (high streets close down). Exploring concepts in these terms can bring rich and unique perspectives into the work.
Struggle real world throws survival problems at us constantly. When we consider a concept in these terms we immediately start to see how we can discuss the benefits it brings, the problems it solves for us.
AccordOur minds construct the abstract world in order that against the struggle of life in the concrete world we can reach accord, or peace. Reflecting on a concept in these terms helps us to see how it can change our personal state of mind.
LIFEThe individual offsets life's struggles by leaning in a practical sense on society and in a spiritual sense on the abstract - simultaneously existing as part of the herd and as a unique individual identity. It is a delicate balance that any concept will influence or disturb. Cyberspace, as a concept, strengthens individual identity (by affirmation, it is easy to find like minds) but breaks down physical community - having the effect of increasing our accord with the abstract at the expense of our struggle with the concrete (it seems nobody helps anybody anymore). Thinking about the effects concepts have on the society/individual and struggle/accord balance can bring a great richness to long form writing.

So the tool presents 8 filters through which we can inspect any concept:

  • The Individual,

  • The Concrete,

  • The Abstract,

  • Struggle,

  • Society,

  • Accord,

  • The Balance of Life, and

  • The Universal

We don't have to use all of these filters for every project but they give us the opportunity to break the work up into 8 sections that have coherent relationships with each other. Each filter gives a basis for consideration that can generate any number things to explore. To write 30,000 words in easy (500 word) chunks you need only think of 7 or 8 ideas inside each filter and you will have a structure that will readily lead to a significant nonfiction work.

You will also avoid the difficulty of staring at a blank page wondering which of your 30,000 words will appear first.

Applying the GRA4AD8

My next (humorous) long-form work will be:

Modern Simple Sabotage: A Citizen's Response to Globalisation.

I have done very little thinking about this as yet, so I will use this concept with the GRA4AD8 tool now to see where it leads me:

1The IndividualAvoiding detection; Finding support;
2The ConcreteSabotaging equipment safely; Essential toolkit; Frustrating processes; Obstructing People Kindly; The original CIA Manual
3The AbstractWhy fight back; Defining Utopia; Building a cell;
4StruggleTactics of the globals; Sound biting; The economic trap of work;
5SocietyCreating Positivity; Challenging Propaganda;
6AccordStaying Positive; Success stories; Chose your battles
7The Balance of LifeEnjoy the fruits; Take time off;
8The UniversalWho not to target; What not to do;

This is not complete. I spent 10 minutes but in that time I have moved from a relatively vague notion that occurred to me only 12 hours ago on the way to work to an early structure that will easily support writing 11,000 words on the subject. The tool is complex in derivation, but extremely simple in application.