The Five C’s of Writing – Part 4: Control

 I like to tell the people that I mentor (some of which are bona fide mental cases):

“You can control only three things in life:

1) what you think,

2) what you say, and

3) what you do.”

Perhaps a subset of #2 above is “what you write.” You have complete control over this, but sometimes writers don’t exercise enough control in their writing. Control requires discipline and organization, knowing the rules and following them, and confining your thinking to that claustrophobic region inside the proverbial box.

When teaching beginning writers control, professors will attempt to shoehorn young people into the straightjacket approach of using an outline, thesis and topic sentences, one idea per paragraph, etc. Personally, I hate outlines – unless I’m compiling the various pieces of a long document from multiple parties. Then it is an essential cat herding control mechanism as useful as a whip and chair (which sometimes I wish I had.)

If I’m writing my own article or paper, I prefer to lump whatever content I have amassed under a few broad subheads. Then I divide and conquer, organizing each section into a coherent, self-contained piece that has a reasonable flow to it. Then I tie the pieces together with some verbiage that makes a nice transition between the sections or their parts (first, second, third), rearranging the order, if necessary. Then I write the ending, then the introduction. I find this method works pretty well, but then I’ve been doing it professionally for decades. Maybe you would like a straightjacket – or need one.

The Grumpy Grammarian says: “One reason we lose control is that we tend to think about all facets of our topic at once. Even if we don’t use a formal outline, we need to group our thoughts into smaller chunks so that we’re focused on related ideas. Our focus means that the reader will focus as well, without distraction, especially if we give the right clues. The clues to organization … should somehow signal to the reader what idea we’re developing (focusing on) at any given point.”

Here is a short list of things we can control in our writing:

Structure – the order can be inverted pyramid like a newspaper story (5 W’s in the lead paragraph), or it can be an Executive Summary followed by the various technical discipline details.

Style – pick a Style Guide (SPE, AP) and use it consistently throughout the paper.

Tone – can be conversational or professional or even hoity-toity if one deems proper.

Point of view – this is a pet peeve of mine when editing friends’ novels. They’ll change from omniscient to the point of view of one character to that of another several times.

Pace – sentence and paragraph length can be very short for a quick read, or can bog down in lengthy explanations (which you may want to do if befuddlement is your purpose.)

Content – controlling what information you include can help you stay on topic and on target.


 Funny True Story: I was driving to work one morning in the late 1990’s when I saw a sign on the side of the road that said “MENTAL REPROGRAMMING” — with a local phone number. I knew several people who I thought should avail themselves of such a useful service, so I stopped the car, got out, yanked the bright orange sign with black letters out of the ground, and threw it in the trunk of my car. I carried it up to my office (amid many quizzical looks from coworkers) and stashed it in the narrow space between the side of the desk and the wall.

One day I had had enough with one of my colleagues, so I pulled out that sign and dialed the number. “We’re sorry, but the number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.”

I sure hope that my pulling that sign out of the ground wasn’t the reason they went out of business.


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