Word Count

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.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 12th 2006, 6:28 AM
Comment by: David B.
I am a new VT subscriber. I have also been given the task of teaching writing to Junior High students. This was an interesting interview and ensures that I will read other offerings that you post.
Monday June 12th 2006, 7:54 AM
Comment by: John A.
I really enjoyed this article. In business communication, it helps to make you re-think your message before you hit the send button. I personally will be more vigilant to make sure my message is excitable and gripping to the recipient.

Best Regards,

John Abbott
Monday June 12th 2006, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Alex DeJesus (Henderson, NV)
I stumbled into this article as soon as I purchsed VT online. I happen to be a poor writer, and this interview cleared up some things for me; made me feel less lost in my search for a unifying message for a paper I'm writing.

Monday June 12th 2006, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Laura D.
I *love* this thought.

Thesis writers or scientists may share my controlling idea--"Controlling ideas sound very much like hypothesis."
Tuesday June 13th 2006, 5:02 PM
Comment by: Robert P.
I really enjoyed this article. I struggle with writing even emails. Until today I have not had a chance to write for fun. I get discouraged because it's messy. This article shed light on that problem. Now, I have to find "my" controlling idea of something I really care about. Now I know that it will take a few drafts to clean up the controlling idea.

As a result of this article, I will write a few drafts and see what happens. I know a lot of stuff. I just don't know how to organize it when it comes out. This article sheds light on why it's messy at the beginning. Thanks.
Tuesday June 13th 2006, 5:15 PM
Comment by: Barry T.
These are wonderful stories. Interesting topics for writers, good advice that gets those of us who are plogging down the cornrows to stand up and look around the field, or step way back and see the whole layout. Just the right length for a brain break, too. When do we see more?

Thursday June 15th 2006, 6:54 PM
Comment by: Christopher F.
I have gone through the process of redefining the controlling idea in everything that I write without understanding clearly what I have been doing. I am unquestionably a little slow. This clarification of a critical part of the deveopmental process of good writing will focus my thinking and make rewriting easier and better. As you write towards clarity your controlling idea should evolve. In that way "something solid is going to emerge from the fog and come into sharp focus and lead you forward".
I like it.
Friday June 16th 2006, 1:10 PM
Comment by: Megan H.
Once again, amazing advice. Thank you.
Saturday June 17th 2006, 3:07 PM
Comment by: L B.
I liked what this piece had to say. It will help me boil down those megathoughts that barge in and destroy my main idea. I have a better concept for appreciating my own writing since I see that other writers have similar problems. LB
Sunday June 18th 2006, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Theodore D.
immensely encouraging (as have been many others). Please keep such high quality articles coming!
Monday June 19th 2006, 7:15 AM
Comment by: Dale H.
I enjoyed this article very much. How can I contact the author, Clark Morgan? Thx.
Monday June 19th 2006, 5:08 PM
Comment by: Avery S.
Very good article. I will share it (gently) with the rest of my office.
Wednesday June 21st 2006, 1:23 PM
Comment by: John K.
Excellent interview. I've forwarded it to a number of my associates here. It never ceases to amaze me that in today's e-mail world people seem to find it a method of communication that allows them to ignore both thinking and writing skills.

I, too, will do several drafts of an e-mail to make sure that it's concise, it clearly makes the point, and that it is grammatically correct. Good writing, whether a short e-mail, extensive business proposal, or personal letter should be done with labor and pride. Too many of the younger people in my business today (advertising and public relations) simply have not been instilled with this attitude.
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Henry B. (East Lansing, MI)
so i'm trying to come up with a couple of quick one week "creative" assignments for students who do not come from areas usually associated with creativity -- you know, the left side/right side of the brain discussion...

being a right-brainer myself, i got side-tracked and read the controlling idea interview... which rememinded me of harry murphy (graphic designer) who had us all researching lamps... all kinds of lamps: hanging, standing, fluorescent, incandescent, quartz... to finally pose the following question: what is the essential idea behind all the lamps you studied? (had we started with "light fixtures," we might have been a step closer...)

lamps might look different depending on their function and shape, but all of them share "light" in common... duh!? how central is this thought in recognizing the thinking behind light fixture design? ... essential!

harry followed by explaining that the demise of the railroad industry in this country followed the inability of its leaders to recognize the essential idea behind the railroads: not to get bogged down with locomotives, kaboozes, switches, tracks, etc. but to recognize that "transportation" was/is the central idea... so air transport and trucking (and the container phenom) exploded in light of railroad executives' failure to recognize and let go of their engineers' hats and all on board cries...

i once had a train engineer's hat... white and blue thin stripes, thick denim... my aunt gave it to me as a present; i have no clue where she found it or why she gave it to me... i never was into trains, not even the lionel train my older cousin passed down to me... aunt betty was an odd one... have i told you about her?

time to go... i'm loosing the controlling idea, and my boss wants to see what i can come up within an hour or so...

keep focused! i've tried, but it has never worked...
i confuse most of my students most of the time, and that's why i get paid the big bucks :-)

Wednesday August 30th 2006, 11:21 AM
Comment by: hazel W.
I've subscribed for a long time and recommended visual thesaurus to hundreds of others by now. I hadn't bothered to read the articles, until today.

I've been trying to finish my book, Business, Brains, & BS. I've been working on it for nearly two years. After reading this interview, I wrote out the few sentences I would like readers to be able to say was the controlling idea. I feel that I now have my process under much better control. Thanks.
Monday March 16th 2009, 6:59 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Set Free! Whew I have been set free. I rewrite all the time, even emails. I never wanted anyone to know that it took me more than one try just to write an email. I agree with Barry T. When do we see more? These instructions are so exciting, I can barely control my typing. Thank you so much for sharing your know how. I will bookmark this article and hope to never lose it.

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