November is National Novel Writing Month, and although none of us here at Zoho are writing novels of our own, NaNoWriMo (as it’s affectionately called) got us thinking about good strategies for getting started and, perhaps more importantly, for keeping going, especially when the work does not feel so rewarding.
And this is precisely what NaNoWriMo provides for its prospective novelists: structure and strategies for cultivating a writing habit, even when inspiration doesn’t strike. Even though we’re not trying to produce 50,000 words this November like the ambitious folks participating in NaNoWriMo, everyone who writes at Zoho needs guidance and support for developing out their own writing habits. So right now I’d like to touch on one of the easiest and most accessible strategies we use for getting started, 4-Question Abstracts
At Zoho, we love abstracts. They help us make hard choices before we sit down to draft. Yes, writers sometimes discover important things while they’re writing, and flashes of insight are a natural and fantastic part of the process, but we think writing goes smoothest when authors have already finished their discovery process and aren’t relying on a flash of inspiration that might never arrive. Muses, we find, are fickle. A detailed plan is more reliable; abstracts are a great tool for making that plan.
If you’ve ever done academic research, you’ll know that traditionally an abstract is a “self-contained, short, and powerful statement that describes a larger work,” usually a full-length article. Its function is to announce the most important intellectual moves within the larger piece (thesis, relevance, methodology, and conclusions). All the information is completely concrete and all the intellectual problems are worked out; there’s nothing abstract about abstracts.
But at Zoho, we approach abstracts a little differently than academics. After all, just as we’re not writing novels here (or most of us aren’t, but it’s great if NaNoWriMo’s inspired a few folks), we’re also not writing academic research for scholarly journals. Accordingly, we’ve taken what we like about the practice—the clarity and precision—and expanded the process into a series of questions that functions as a sort of four-part FAQ for the writer.
The questions are:
1. The Elevator Pitch (or, What is the goal of the piece?)
2. The Cocktail Party Pitch (or, Why is it important?)
3. Who is your audience?
4. How will you achieve your goal?
The first question, about the piece’s goal, is another way of formulating a thesis statement or topic, and should be answerable in one sentence. If you can’t state your goal in just a few words, you need to think a bit more about what you’re trying to say. You’ll start with tons of ideas swirling around in your head, and you’ll finish with one or two. Consider my example:
1 – The Elevator Pitch (or, What is the goal of the piece?)
My goal is to explain for four most common brainstorming techniques: listing, mind-mapping, clusters, and free-writing.
Sometimes you hear people talk about an “Elevator Pitch.” I love this. The idea is that if you ever find yourself on an elevator with someone important you’d like to dazzle, you want to be ready to announce who you are and what you do succinctly and clearly, before the elevator doors open and your potential new connection gets off at their floor.
But paring your goal down to one sentence is tough, and some writers find it easier if they do not start at this step. Rather, it can be easier to start by answering the second question, which is more open-ended, expansive, and forgiving:
2 – The Cocktail Party Pitch (or, Why is it important?)
This is the first in a series of pieces about writing and revising. We’ve chosen to start with outlines because many people struggle to come up with ideas when they write. According to a recent survey, 40% of respondents said that brainstorming is the most difficult part of the writing process. As a result, we’re trying to capitalize on the high volume of people searching for long-tail keys such as “How do I outline?” and “What is the best technique for outlining?”
If Question #1 is designed to channel information with ruthless efficiency on a short elevator ride, then Question #2 is perhaps better imagined as the “Cocktail Party Conversation,” when you have a bit more time to account for your work. And if not a cocktail party, imagine some other situation in which you get a brief, low-stakes audience with someone important, maybe over lunch or when everyone’s sitting around right before a meeting. You’ll get the chance to explain yourself, but not for too long.
But beyond imaginary cocktail parties, every author must answer the dreaded “So-what?” question. At Zoho, most writing relates to marketing, and a CTA makes a goal pretty clear. Aside from gaining a click-through or a share or a like, we want our blogs, landing pages, even our error messages to inform, entertain, or persuade our readers.
In my example, I answer the “So what?” question pretty specifically: I articulate a problem (“…many people struggle…”), ground my comments within a larger discussion (“…according to a recent survey…”) to telegraph my piece’s relevance, and bring it all back to how my piece will help not only writers but also Zoho at large (“…to capitalize on… long-tail keywords…”). Struggling to answer Question #2 is normal. After all, it’s hard mental work to decide why you’re writing something in a way that’s specific and rigorous. Nonetheless, it’s far easier to settle these matters before you’re trying to draft.
Just as it can be easier to answer Question #2 after #1, everything about your answer to #1 and #2 turns on how you answer Question #3, Who’s your audience? Who a writer is addressing impacts every aspect of the finished piece—its title, length, word choice, graphics, presentation, examples, what its goal is, and how it achieves that goal. Let’s look at my example:
3 – Who is your audience?
We’re targeting new writers who are eager for self-improvement.
I’ve identified a target audience, new writers, and I’ll aim to write at a level that avoids jargon or presumes an expert’s grasp of the issues. I’ll tailor my practical suggestions to their ambitions and capabilities. And because I’ve further refined my audience to specify not just new writers but those new writers who are eager for self-improvement, I won’t need to work hard to convince these readers that improvement is possible and desirable. Any other audience would inspire different sorts of writing.
Once you’ve figured out why you’re writing and who you want to reach, you’re finally ready to address how you’ll do it:
4 – How will you achieve your goal?
I want to open with a personal story about the difficulties I had writing this blog. I’ll talk about the anxiety I felt, and I’ll use humor to make nervous writers feel more comfortable. After the opening I’ll switch to a more information-dense style, maybe using Buzzfeed-esque language. Then, at the end, I’ll return to the story I told at the beginning to remind readers of the personal angle.
You want a roadmap of how you’re going to deliver content, but not the content itself. In the example above, I say I’ll recount a personal anecdote because that’s an important step to locate on my roadmap. Yet I don’t spend any time in the abstract filling out the details that will make the anecdote funny, compelling, and relatable because that information will only be important in the draft. A roadmap might tell you which route to take, but it doesn’t tell the history of every town you’ll drive through.
A writer’s answer to Question #4 is a roadmap to keep focus. When you get stuck, your roadmap can tell you where to go next. When you’re discouraged, the hard work you’ve already invested in devising your plan will inspire you to keep going. When you get lost in examples or tangents, the knowledge of where you’re supposed to go will keep you on the right path.
Finally, those of at Zoho who’ve used this 4-Question Abstract don’t want to be dogmatic about our own processes. We’ve found these four questions to be particularly valuable to help writers get started, but each writer might devise their own list of questions tailored to their genre or their working style. Whatever works. We’re just pleased whenever any writer gets their words on that page.
Written by Christian Blood for Zoho.
Read Part 2: Outwriting your inner critic.
‘Muses are fickle’ is a written series about some great practices for getting started with writing. Subscribe now to get notified about all the latest content from Zoho.