Robert Greene On Thinking and Writing Well

330px-Robert_Greene_B&WRobert Greene wrote several best-selling books, including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 50th Law (with 50 Cent). Though I have qualms about the Machavellian philosophy in several of these, I am fascinated by Robert’s writing process.

“What I learned is that willpower, the intensity of desire, and practice can take us to levels of performance we never thought possible,” Robert writes. He suggests the following strategies.


Like Haruki Murakami, Robert compares writing books to running a marathon. There’s nothing glamorous about the process, which can involve periods of physical and mental depletion.

To prevent this, says Greene, develop a rigorous exercise routine. Avoid boredom by alternating between several activities, such as running and biking.

Gradually increase the intensity of your daily exercise. If you reach a point where you feel sustained tiredness, then back off a little. The goal is a plateau of activity that gives you more energy throughout the day.


Robert does at least 30 minutes of Zen meditation daily. This increases his ability to concentrate and let unexpected insights emerge.

Research to discover an original structure for your ideas

To research a new book, Robert reads 200 to 300 existing books on his topic. This takes about a year.

He takes notes in an old-school way, writing by hand on index cards:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes (called marginalia) on the side.

After I’m done reading I’ll often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards. A good book will generate 20 to 30 notecards, while a bad book will generate two or three notecards.

Essentially, Robert deconstructs existing books into smaller pieces and looks for new relationships between them. Eventually the table of contents for his next book is born.

Cultivate “negative capability”

Negative capability — a concept from the poet John Keats — means tolerating uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. This prods us to think in new ways that resolve apparent contradictions.

To practice negative capability, develop a habit of observing people without judging them. Try to see the world from their point of view.

Also, as you begin a writing project, list your current assumptions about the topic. Then throw out or suspend as many as possible.

Think like an outsider

If you have training in a field that’s not directly related to your project, then use this as an advantage. What concepts from this field can you “import”? The answers will help you ask new questions and find novel connections between ideas.

Subvert your current patterns of thinking

Seek out facts and theories that contradict your current conclusions. Then ask why and how they can exist. When studying an event, ask yourself how it could have unfolded in a different way.

Use active imagination

For example, Henry Ford imagined workers standing still and working with auto parts that came to them. Result: the assembly line.

Use notebooks, drawings, and diagrams to visualize new ideas. Translate ideas into predictions and even physical models that you can test. Iterate and see what works — even if it takes you in a surprising direction.

In short, think of creativity as fusing two entities within you:

  • The child, who explores the world with few assumptions and thinks in fluid, flexible ways
  • The adult, who uses knowledge, experience, and observation to refine first thoughts into working theories

Note: For more about how Robert works, go to my sources for this post:

The Art of Relaxed Productivity — Four Ideas from Jay Parini

JayParini-052212-0021-crop.jpgI read a wonderful memoir — The Art of Teaching by Jay Parini, professor of English at Middlebury College. Besides reflecting on the challenges of teaching college students, Parini sprinkles the book with gems about ways to get a lot of writing done.

This man is prolific. He has written 20 books and many articles. And he’s done this in the midst of a daily grind — lectures, seminars, advising, meetings, and the other minutiae of academic and family life.

How does Parini do it? By trashing several assumptions — for example, that productivity requires ascetic self-discipline, large blocks of time, sustained concentration, and large daily outputs. He’s replaced those ideas with options that sound a lot more practical and fun.

Cultivate a studied laziness

Most of us—including myself—waste vast amounts of time. I don’t actually mind that, I should add. Like Robert Frost, I believe that laziness is essential to creativity; I get a lot done because I have time to burn. I tell myself over and over that there is so much time, so little to do.

Seize small chunks of time

As a graduate student at St. Andrews, I watched a few of my more prolific mentors carefully. One of them, an extremely productive and original scholar of Greek literature, culture, and language, was Sir Kenneth Dover…. I once asked him the secret of his productivity and he said, without hesitation: “I’ve learned how to use the odd gaps of 20 minutes or so that occur at various points during the day”…. I suspect that most of us fail to use the hours of the day properly. We imagine, foolishly, that huge quantities of time are needed to settle into a project, to reactivate the engines of thought.

Welcome the structure provided by other commitments

I don’t care what they say: it is possible to write and teach and the same time. In fact, I have a hard time writing without teaching…. Teaching organizes my life, gives a structure to my week, puts before me certain goals: classes to conduct, books to reread, papers to grade, meetings to attend. I move from event to event, having a clear picture in my head of what I must do next.

Work in bursts

Most good work gets done in short stretches. It isn’t really possible to concentrate for more than half an hour without a solid break…. Even when I have the whole day to work, I stop every 20 minutes to make a cup of tea, eat a cookie, call a friend, do a little yoga or a few stomach crunches, shower, or take a short walk.

P.S. One of Parini’s inspirations is John Updike, who wrote 50 books and won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and other honors. And what was Updike’s daily output? Two pages. I’m a schmuck but that sounds totally do-able.

Avoiding Stories That Undermine Your Credibility

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.

One place that crap easily enters our thinking is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.

The infamous boiling frog

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Those legendary earners from Yale

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.

The moral of this story

Only tell stories that you can verify based on:

  • Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
  • Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
  • Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format

Image courtesy of Free Nature Pictures

Writing Self-Help That Actually Helps People — Three Lessons From David Allen

iuI recently bought the new edition of Getting Things Done by David Allen and was delighted to see a foreword by James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and GTD enthusiast. (GTD is the acronym for Getting Things Done.)

Writing about the benefits of GTD, Fallows makes several points that writers of business and self-help books cannot afford to ignore. To begin:

Book catalogs are full of listings for volumes that offer advice on how to improve your work habits, your health, your productivity, and your overall success in life.

Some of what they say is typically dressed-up common sense. A fraction of it is baloney. Much of it is worth reading one time, if that, and is forgettable hours or days after you have put the book down.

What sets GTD apart, says Fallows, are the following three features. Let’s bake these into our own publications and presentations as well.

A flexible and forgiving approach

Many authors offer a multi-step program with the assumption that you will complete all the steps in the suggested order. In some cases — as with people who do the Twelve Steps as part of their recovery from addiction — this is the norm.

In most cases, however, readers will balk at wholesale implementation of a “one size fits all” program. As Fallows notes, “approaches that are incremental and forgiving of error are more likely to pay off in the long run.”

Whenever possible, present a program that still offers benefits even when it is applied piece by piece.

A timelessness that is tool-agnostic

David Allen revised Getting Things Done, in part, because the first edition referred to obsolete technology such as Palm Pilots and Filofaxes. With the second edition, he removes these references and offers suggestions that do not depend on specific products. People can implement GTD methods with software, with paper-based tools, or a combination of both.

At bottom, GTD is a way to think clearly about your commitments and choose the very next action to move each of them forward. What counts is the underlying principles — not the specific tools that you use.

Authenticity and integrity

As a personal friend of David Allen, James Fallows can attest that David actually lives by the ideas that he teaches. This is key for authors of how-to books: They lead by their example as well as their words. Our credibility is undermined when readers sense a disconnect between what we say and what we do.

Ask yourself: Do I actually use the ideas that I recommend? And am I getting the desired results? If the answer to either question is no, then you’ve got a problem. It’s time to tweak your program, change your behavior, or do a little of both.

Never Lose An Idea — Naming Files to Find Them Later

IMG_2508When writing, the last thing I want to do is waste time searching for a specific fact, anecdote, or quote in a mass of disorganized notes. Through painful experience, I learned to store my notes in plain text files and title them for instant retrieval.

I came to this strategy after diving into the literature on tagging and personal taxonomies. This stuff quickly gets geeky.

Save yourself the effort and start with the following three suggestions. Along with the search options built in to your software, they might be all you need.

1. Predict the future you

This is the most important thing: Know your own mind. What key words will you use to search for a file in the future? Put those words in the file name.

To arrive at key words, list the attributes of files that matter most to you. Attributes of a file are words that describe its content. Some examples are:

  • Date that the file was created or changed
  • Topic and subtopic
  • Names of people and organizations
  • Author and title of a book, article, or blog post
  • File type (such as .pdf or .doc)

Ian Beck gives these additional examples:

For instance, when you are filing or searching for a photo, what do you think of? The location of the photo? The subject or people in the photo? The event taking place when you took the photo? Something else entirely? Write out a list of the attributes that you think of when thinking of your target items.

List the attributes that matter to you. Pick the top two or three and think of corresponding key words to put in your file names.

2. Call out projects

Consider an über-useful idea from Scott Berkun: Everything that you do is a project. Here I define project as David Allen does in Getting Things Done — any outcome that requires more than one action step.

You can start to organize your files by asking one question: Is this my main collection of notes about a specific project? If so, include the project in the file name.

3. Add “x” to the first word in a file name

For example, begin project file names with projectx, as in projectx write a blog post or projectx buy a new car.  Then, when I search with the keyword projectx, I only get a list of my current projects — not a list of all the files that merely contain the word project.

Bonus suggestions

  • Consider creating two specific filesactionx (a list of the next action you intend to take on each of your current projects) and inx (an “inbox” or journal for random thoughts that occur to you on the run).
  • Pick a single key word word for each attribute. Make the key word short, simple, and memorable. Make a list of your keywords and refer to it often.
  • Use lowercase filenames. They’re easier to type and remember. Avoid punctuation, hyphenation, and plural forms for the same reason.

Move Over, Evernote — Capture Your Ideas Without “Big Bucket” Apps

DSCN2469I’ve been writing professionally since 1980. Since then I’ve burned through multiple operating systems, hardware configurations, and software packages.

(Confession: I used Wordstar back in the days when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.)

Eventually my hard disk became a battle zone. Documents with incompatible structures and warring formats littered the charred landscape. Often I couldn’t even open the older files.

To writers and idea entrepreneurs, this is perilous. Buried in all that digital detritus are veins of pure gold: Unpublished drafts. Still-relevant research. Glittering anecdotes. Sparkling quotes. Material that could be recycled, re-used, and re-sold.

At some point we face the task of poking through our electronic trash to extract the gems. But the effort is doomed unless we move them into a trusted system where nothing ever gets lost again.

The perils of “big bucket” apps

In my search for solutions, I first turned to apps that are specifically designed to house huge collections of notes. I call them “big bucket” apps because in many cases you can throw just about anything in them — photos, PDFs, web pages, and anything else in digital form.

Among these apps are:

Apps like these are intoxicating. I’ve spent entire days playing with them — importing my data, tinkering with features, and marveling at gorgeous interfaces.

In the end, I abandoned them all.

Why? Because of their inherent shortcomings:

  • Uncertainty. At any time, developers can lose interest or companies can go out out of business. Result: your app gets abandoned.
  • Inflexibility. No matter what the developers claim, you eventually outgrow the features and file limits that the apps impose.
  •  Imprisonment. You get locked in to a proprietary data base. If you ever decide to export your notes to another app or different file format — well, good luck. You might face hours of mind-numbing copy-and-paste operations.

In short, using big bucket apps means that your life’s work is stuck in someone else’s app, subject to their preferences and schedule.

Seven goals of personal information management

When it comes to managing my ideas, what I want is a set of tools that is:

  1. Agnostic — usable on any platform and not tied to a specific app
  2. Future-proof — usable for the long-term with whatever platforms and operating systems emerge in the future
  3. Portable — allowing me to easily export and import notes
  4. Lightweight — storing notes in smaller, more efficient files
  5. Flexible — accepting files that range in size from a few words to a book-length manuscript
  6. Accessible — allowing me to open, edit, and save files with any computer or mobile device
  7. Free or inexpensive — based on apps that I already own, such as those that were shipped with my computer, or apps that don’t cost much

My solution is a system of plain-text files stored in the “cloud.” Check out Organize Your Ideas With Plain Text Files and Never Lose An Idea — Naming Files to Find Them Later.

Note: This post was inspired by a long, nerdy, and delicious article from Douglas Barone.

Rereading ‘Information Anxiety’ — Seven Ideas That Still Make a Difference

0553348566.01._SL130_SCLZZZZZZZ__Recently I pulled my copies of Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman off the shelf. The first edition, published in 1989 — pre-Internet — blew me away. The 2001 edition was even better. (Alas, the book is no longer in print, but look for it at your library or search online.)

Following are some insights from the book that still nourish me.

1 Learning begins with admitting ignorance

This is more than a platitude. Admitting ignorance is often a descent into chaos, with all the attendant fear. I’ve felt this fear at the beginning of projects about complex topics that were new to me.

Admitting ignorance runs counter to the sound-bite mentality of our culture. We fear looking stupid. And we admire people who exude confidence and deliver quick answers.

What helps me is remembering Richard’s words:

When you can admit that you don’t know, you are more likely to ask the questions that will enable you to learn. When you don’t have to filter your inquisitiveness through a smoke screen of intellectual posturing, you can genuinely receive or listen to new information. If you are always trying to disguise your ignorance of a subject, you will be distracted from understanding it.

Richard admits that he is typically the first person in a room full of experts to ask the “stupid” questions. What empowers him is remembering the curse of knowledge: Once you understand something, you immediately forget what it’s like not to understand it. Asking the first questions that occur to you can nudge the experts past this curse.

2 Access is the antidote to anxiety

For every body of information that’s new to you, there is a point of access — a “personal table of contents.” Be patient, and be willing to look.

Begin by remembering the difference between raw data and information. For example, an acre equals 43,560 square feet. This is data, and it doesn’t mean much to me.

In contrast, I can remember that an acre is about as big as an American football field without the end zones. That is information. I gain access by connecting a new fact to something I already understand.

3 Information is infinite, but the ways of organizing it are not

Those ways of organizing information boil down to the “five ultimate hat racks”:

  • Location
  • Alphabet
  • Time
  • Category
  • Hierarchy

Richard gives this example:

If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.

Take the first letter of each item in the above list and you get the acronym LATCH. Easy to remember.

4 There is no such thing as “keeping up” — only following the trail of your own interests

“Learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in,” Richard notes. Due to the inherent connection between subjects, you can “follow any interest on a path through all knowledge.”

It’s perfectly fine to indulge ourselves by turning our personal interests into our primary information filter. The stuff that stimulates our curiosity is probably all that we’ll remember. Besides, there’s so much available information that we’ll never track it all anyway.

5 “News” usually increases information anxiety

News has been defined as “the same things happening over and over again to different people.” This is an exaggeration, of course. And it points us in a useful direction.

Too often, the news gets packaged as isolated facts, devoid of context. And let’s be honest: On any given day, there are only a handful of stories that really matter. The rest are optional.

In the first edition of Information Anxiety, Richard suggests that we ask these questions when consuming news:

  • What do the numbers mean?
  • To what other events does this incident relate?
  • What is it the announcer isn’t telling me?
  • Why is this story more important than another?
  • And, the most crucial question, how does this story apply to my life?

6 Most of our communication is about giving and receiving instructions

“Every successful communication is really an instruction in disguise — from love letters to company brochures,” Richard writes. This is particularly true when the desired outcome is an action for someone to take.

Good instructions include these elements:

  • Mission — the purpose or main benefit of following the instructions
  • Destination — the ideal outcome of following the instructions
  • Procedure — the essential tasks to perform
  • Duration — the amount of time that the procedure will take
  • Anticipation — the conditions that I can expect to encounter as I carry out the procedure
  • Failure — signs that I’m making errors and how to correct them

When we give instructions, Richard adds, “we test our ability to communicate information and gauge what we really know.”

7 Talk is deep

Conversation “is imbued with extraordinary complexities, nuances, and ephemeral magic.” When talking to others, we start, stop, digress, and make connections in non-linear ways.

Conversation leads to understanding as we allow ourselves to admit ignorance, explore options, and probe for context. Richard gives this example:

The industrial design critic Ralph Kaplan was talking to a woman who was trying to explain something to him. “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t put it into words,” she told him. Puzzled, Caplan asked her, “Can you tell me what form it is in now?”

The inherent richness of conversation makes it a worthy match for the sheer onslaught of data that confronts us daily. Ironically, the oldest medium of communication helps us make peace with the newest ones.

Remembering What You Read — Ways to Take Notes on Books

DSC_0339I don’t know whether Tim Ferriss’s interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings went viral, but surely it came close. Brain Pickings has over a million monthly readers, and Maria publishes two to three posts daily. What’s more, she mostly curates offline sources—that is, books.

Maria described her process at 39 minutes into the interview:

On the very last page of each book, which is blank, usually…I create an alternate index. So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important and recurring in that volume. And then next to each of them I start listing out the page numbers where they occur. And on those pages I’ve obviously highlighted the respective passage and have a little sticky tab so that I can find it. It’s basically an index based not on key words…but based on key ideas.

Contrast this with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, who reads over 150 books each year and writes about many of them. Like Maria, he favors printed books. His note-taking process is this:

  • Read the front matter—preface, the table of contents, and inside jacket.
  • Glance over the index.
  • Decide whether to read the book.
  • Take notes while reading—circle words to look up, star key points, underline interesting passages, list questions, note connections, and write comments in the margins.
  • Summarize each chapter with a few bullet points.
  • Writing on a blank sheet of paper, explain the core ideas of the book to yourself.

Essentially, Shane says, he’s “trying to engage in a conversation with the author.” Shane then puts the book away and waits at least one week before returning to it. At that time, he reviews all his handwritten notes:

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Finally, he takes selected quotations and copies them into his commonplace book.

These are all wonderful suggestions. At the same time, I wonder how many of us will actually implement such algorithms.

I’ll leave you with a simpler suggestion for note-taking from Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (a delightful book that’s so seldom mentioned anymore):

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically—at the end of each chapter or whenb something important strikes you—and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Writing for Behavior Change — Keep it Simple, Sweetheart

GmI0zVlESimplicity is critical when you write instructions for completing a process or gaining insight. This is especially true when your audience has low literacy levels, an impaired ability to concentrate, or both. The goal is to create “easy-to-read” materials without patronizing your audience.

Start from beginner’s mind

What makes writing instructions so hard is the curse of knowledge: “The minute we know something, we forget what it was like to not know it” (Richard Saul Wurman). Test your instructions by giving them to people who are new to your topic.

Make it flow

Readers experience flow as taking a journey that unfolds in a logical way. Each “turn” (new topic in your instructions) is clearly signaled and remembered.

Begin with an introduction that clearly states:

  • What your article or book is about
  • Who it is written for
  • What people will be able to do as a result of following your instructions

Then begin each chapter or section with an “advance organizer.” These are previews of what’s to come—a list of key topics and points that will be covered. Also include periodic reviews of key points and strong transitions between topics.

Flag the key points

Make the main points obvious. Don’t make people hunt for them or guess what they are. Flag those points with:

  • Boldface headings
  • Bulleted lists
  • Numbered lists
  • Charts, tables, or diagrams
  • White space between major sections
  • Photos and illustrations
  • Icons that signal exercises and other recurring elements

Break processes into steps

In each step of your process, describe one action for your reader to take. Start sentences with an active verb that tells readers exactly what to do or say.

Reduce cognitive burdens

Use a simple vocabulary—concrete, familiar words. Keep most sentences short with a minimum of internal punctuation. Avoid complex subjects, or ease into them gradually.

Keep it concrete

Effective instructions are practical, realistic, and relevant. They describe visible, physical actions that readers can actually take in daily life to solve problems that actually matter.

Give examples

Follow every major idea with a concrete example of how to apply it. Also provide lots of stories and structured experiences that let readers test ideas for themselves.

Keep it real

Be careful about quoting experts in support of your ideas. A certain amount of this supports your credibility. But too much can lead readers to distrust your instructions as too academic and removed from “real life.”

Cut the fluff

Many readers will dismiss “motivational writing.” Avoid self-help psychobabble, jargon, and “pep talks” that ramp up enthusiasm in a phony way.

Keep it lean

Good instructions are organized around a handful of ideas that are explained, illustrated, repeated, summarized, and applied.

As you write, keep the main point of each section in mind. Relentlessly purge material that is off-topic. Save it for another section, chapter, blog post, or book.

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories and Structured Experiences

580488_623132987698607_278299478_nWe can take two different paths when writing books that help readers to change their behavior —process learning and insight learning. These exist on a continuum, and both kinds of learning are valuable. Good instructions for behavior change alternate between process (how to do something) and insight (why doing something will benefit me).

In the latter type of learning, insights are discovered by readers rather than taught through rules, examples, practice, and feedback. Effective stories work well for this purpose. In addition, you can include exercises, or structured experiences. Following are some options.

Making lists

One way for readers to make your key learning points more concrete is to list personal examples. If you’re writing about habit change, for instance, ask readers to describe times when they successfully changed a habit.

Readers could follow up with another list of times when their change attempts failed. Making both lists sets up people to reflect on which habit-change strategies worked well and which did not.

Telling my story

Sometimes people benefit by telling their story at length — with more scope and depth than possible in a brief list of examples.

This strategy is widely used in groups based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. For AA members, “telling your story” of hitting bottom with addiction and making the decision to get help is fundamental.

Exemplar cases

Create stories about how people succeed at applying a process in daily life. These stories can range from brief anecdotes to extended narratives. In any case, the purpose of these stories is to give examples of how your ideas actually work.

The trick is to make these stories vivid, credible, and authentic. Keep abstract theory and academic jargon to a minimum. Also remember that stories can be presented through audio and video as well as text.

Problem cases

Create open-ended stories (case studies). These leave the main character in the middle of the action with a problem to solve. Ask readers to suggest possible solutions and evaluate each one.

If you’re writing for recovering alcoholics about how to prevent relapse, for example, include a story about a person who ends up at a party where he feels strong urges to drink again. Then prompt readers to suggest relapse-prevention strategies.

Structured experiences

With these “outbound” activities, readers go beyond the page and take their learning into daily life. For example, they can:

  • Apply a process. Say that you’re explaining a process for decision-making. Ask readers to apply the steps in that process to a real decision in their lives and describe the results.
  • Practice a script. Write a model that readers can use to make an assertive request, say no to a compromising situation, or practice some other skill.
  • Carry out an experiment. Ask readers to pair with a partner or join a small group. They practice a new behavior, observe the outcomes, and share their insights with each other.

Prompts for reflection and further action

Stories and structured experiences gain power when they are modeled, debriefed and discussed. You can do this by providing:

  • Sample responses to exercises.
  • Questions that direct attention to key events in a story and points to remember.
  • Questions that guide readers to express their own insights and plan new behaviors based on their insights.
  • Reminders that readers share their insights and plans with a peer, group, mentor, sponsor, counselor, or coach.

You can also prompt readers to reflect by completing sentences. Therapist Nathaniel Branden offers many examples here. In the Master Student Series of books, we prompt students to follow up on stories and structured experiences with two simple sentence fragments:

  • I discovered that….
  • I intend to….

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.