Writers Talk About Writing
Controlling the Controlling Idea
In this installment of Bagel & Schmear -- my ongoing conversation about writing with playwright and ad creative exec Clark Morgan -- we discuss what the "controlling idea" means to your non-fiction writing. Whether putting together a business brief or best-seller, Clark says, "the controlling idea is your friend." [Editor]
VT: What is the controlling idea?
Clark: Everything you write needs to express one main thought, not twenty. When people finish reading what you've written, you want them to be able to easily say what it was about. You don't want, "Well, you got to read it." That's a bad answer.
VT: I just read this book called "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell.
Clark: Really? What's it about?
VT: Thinking. The kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye. Different facets of rapid cognition -- what goes on in our heads in two seconds, when are snap judgments good, when are they not. Is that what you mean?
Clark: Not exactly. "The kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye" is a topic. A controlling idea is a topic plus what you have to say about the topic. So if you said "Blink of an eye thinking is better than careful deliberation" -- that's a controlling idea.
VT: How does a writer go about creating a controlling idea?
Clark: First of all, it's handy to divide writing into the process and the product -- the act of writing and the finished piece. So far we've been talking about the product, the controlling idea as placed before the reader. Fine and dandy. But you have to remind yourself you don't start with the product. You start with the process. And the controlling idea as part of the process is not so tidy.
VT: Gimme an example.
Clark: I've been thinking lately about how I detest collapsible umbrellas. Maybe I write about that. My controlling idea might be "collapsible umbrellas are absurd." Not great, but I know it's just a draft and I'll come back and change it later. So I start off trying to prove, and support and argue, why these umbrellas are absurd. As I compose, all sorts of things will occur to me. Some of them support my controlling idea, some won't.
VT: So you use the controlling idea as the touchstone? And throw away all the stuff that doesn't support it?
Clark: Eventually. But it's too early for that now. The mind doesn't work in an orderly way, so some of the stuff I come up with will be strange and unexpected and there will be weird combinations of ideas. I also come up with things I want to say that I hadn't foreseen. These creative ideas force me to revise my controlling idea. So then I do another draft and that forces me to revise the controlling idea again and so on. And eventually, I settle on the final one that goes in front of the reader.
VT: So the controlling idea you start with is going to keep changing as you write.
Clark: Absolutely. Because writing is a way of thinking about something. A way of coming to grips with something. It's a way of uncovering what you really have to say.
VT: I think a lot of people come up with a main idea once and just want to leave it at that.
Clark: Sure. People start off with a main idea, which is many times far too broad, then they start writing and all the chaos of the subconscious wells up, and all the disjointed stuff comes out. Somewhere in there is the main idea -- what you really have to say. But you're going have crush and sift and smelt it out of there. Refine and hone it. But people give up too easily. We're all loathe to change the main idea because it means more work.
VT: Isn't it also because you want to have at least one thing nailed down? You want to say okay, I'm going to revise everything a lot, but at least I know what I'm writing about.
Clark: Sure. But you don't really know what you're writing about in the beginning. In writing you don't completely know where you're going until you get there.
VT: It's that feeling of being lost I don't like.
Clark: Well, it helps if you go into it knowing you're going to change your main idea a couple times. Know you're going to start off with a map that is going to get redrawn as you go, which will leave you feeling lost and confused. But know that as the map changes, something solid is going to emerge from the fog and come into sharp focus and lead you forward. It definitely will. And it's exciting to watch your unexpected ideas unfold.
VT: Okay, what if you're not writing "Blink" but, instead, a lowly business communication?
Clark: Whether it's a report or an email, you still need a controlling idea. Typically you want people to know something or you want them to do something (or sometimes stop doing it.) Ask yourself, what do I want the reader to know? Or, "what do I want the reader to do?" Make that the first sentence. Make it simple, make it clear up top. Once you introduce this controlling idea, then add the "here's why" -- the things that support it. If you do this you'll get much better results. But again it could take a draft or two to get that clear to yourself. I'd say I revise even a short business email at least twice before I've figured out what I really want to say, and the clearest, simplest way to say it.
VT: Seems like more work.
Clark: The alternative is to just write any old junk, hit send and watch what happens. Which will be nothing. Except confusion.
VT: What else?
Clark: For the love of God, write something interesting! When I taught writing, my students would hand in these papers that were stupefyingly dull. I'd ask them, "are you interested in this?" and they'd say, no. And I'd say, "neither am I." Why don't you write something you care about? So then I'd get things like, "We Need to Stop Littering." But you can't just care about the topic. It has to matter to you that you communicate your point of view. A more interesting controlling idea would be "We Need to Litter More Often." Start with that. See where that takes you. Or, "Why I Litter." See? Makes you want to read it.
VT: Right. It's provocative, alive. Somebody with something to say. Back to my Gladwell example, I remember reading a review of "Blink" that said Gladwell imparts his own "evident pleasure" in proving his controlling idea. Evident pleasure.
Clark: That's exactly it. You must have a real desire to communicate something -- whatever it is. To me, this desire is even more important than how you write it. If it's not fun for you, it won't be fun for anyone else.