Sift and Synthesize

An idea is a new combination of old elements

This part comes after.

After the interviews and after reading the transcripts, after absorbing the journal articles and revisiting the notes from discussions with various experts. After taking in as much as possible, there is the sitting-back and ordering of facts and impressions.

Maybe you use an outline. Maybe you use index cards. Maybe you use a mind map or a whiteboard. Maybe you draw figures or icons on the back of corporate memos. But this is an essential creative exercise: sorting through and elevating the pivotal ideas that surface. This creative exercise is about identifying and corralling the really important stuff. The stuff that simply must be transmitted. 

Finding the story amidst the facts

A shortcut to this essential phase is a conversation. If a colleague interrupts you with “What’s that project about?” The first three things out of your mouth—those things worth remarking on aloud—need to find their way into the copy. Often, they become the main topics.

Sometimes I’ll just start writing to see what I say. Give yourself 10 minutes to answer “What is this about?” and you will come close to producing an outline for the piece.

Or you can write a letter to a smart ten-year-old. Molding an idea into a simplified (but not simplistic) presentation has a clarifying effect.

The point is that your mind needs to find a way to grapple with myriad facts and figures and impressions and data—to sort minor from major and to find the story that makes sense to you and your target audience.

I like the wide-open blank page aspect of lifting and separating ideas. I also like that brand new stuff presents itself while you immerse yourself in the old:

…an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

James W. Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas (NY: Thinking Ink Media, 2011)

Synthesizing takes time and space

Identifying the significant facts and themes from your notes and sources takes time. Just like a gold miner crouched over a creek sifting through rock dust for nuggets of gold, you will have to dwell on everything you’ve learned before you come up with the really good stuff—the ideas worthy of a place in your final draft.

Writers may be tempted to grasp at the trendiest idea first, but the ideas that form the cornerstone of your argument are likely the ones hidden amongst your careful research.

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