Coffee Break Series: Writing as Design

As a primarily qualitative researcher, a big part of my job is translating heaps of interview transcripts and observation notes into clear and succinct narrative.  It’s not easy work.  I have always enjoyed writing, but I often struggle to translate my messy web of ideas into coherent sentences and well-organized paragraphs.  So, in an effort to be more deliberate about honing my writing skills, I gathered RK&A around our kitchen table back in September to discuss the article “How to Be a Better Writer: 6 Tips from Harvard’s Steven Pinker.”  The article summarizes ideas from cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

One idea that stuck out to me relates to complexity: research shows that concepts that are easy for our brain to process feel truer than those that require work to understand.  This makes intuitive sense—when an idea is simply and clearly expressed, it is easier to believe.  Thus, enters design thinking.

Perhaps the most intriguing point Pinker makes about writing comes from his book (which the article inspired me to read)—the idea that a coherent piece of text is a “designed object.”  He writes:

“There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version of one’s notes.  A coherent text is a designed object: an ordered tree of sections within section, crisscrossed by arcs that track topics, points, actors, and themes, and held together by connectors that tie one proposition to the next.  Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance.”

I’d never thought to frame writing as a design process or text as an object, but I haven’t been able to get the idea out of my head.  Like anything designed, a text must be approached with intention.  This includes lots of revision.  As Pinker notes, a coherent text never comes about on the first try.  Seems obvious—but, like good design, good writing isn’t easy.  Take this post an example—I went through about 10 versions before publishing!

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