Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The best way to learn something is to teach it. You have to take what you know (and what you think you know) and put it down in writing. You have to organize it in a way that it makes sense to others. Psychologists and psychiatrists have their own version of having clients organize their thoughts in ways that make sense to others. When you sit down and describe your problems and the things that are bothering you to someone else, you have to organize your thoughts. When you put your thoughts into words in a way that makes sense to others, you get a chance to hear them more clearly than when they are just thoughts colliding with each other in your brain. Many people feel better after discussing a problem because they hear themselves thinking about it in new ways. In a therapeutic environment like this, the technique is known as free association, where you freely share what comes to mind, often in what seems to be random thoughts. When I free associate, every new thought gets a new paragraph until I have no more thoughts. I write in paragraphs that I later come back and organize, keeping the two processes separate. I use this technique sometimes when I write these columns. I start with an idea, a topic, a theme, or an item from the news. As I read about the subject I intend to write about, I wander down side streets after things that interest me. Sometimes the article I publish is not the one I set out to write because I found something more interesting as I meandered along. 

Stream of consciousness

This is a technique that follows the flow of where your thoughts are going without any attempt to channel them in a particular direction. There is also no effort made to polish or make corrections along the way. Don’t edit as you go and don’t worry about punctuation. If you use auto-correct or a spell checker, turn it off because it will only interrupt your flow. All of that can come later. For now, the goal is to keep on writing, keep on putting thoughts down as they come to you. Free association and stream of consciousness leap around from one idea to another, which is pretty much how our brains work. Ideas pop into our heads, often unbidden, unconnected and unorganized. Capture them when you can.

Drifting along on the stream of consciousness is an attempt to bypass the organized, structured mind and tap into the unconscious

It is unfiltered. Stream of consciousness is most commonly used as a literary device where the writer voices the character’s thoughts in sort of an interior monologue. The thoughts are not structured or analyzed, but flow freely from the character. The technique is associated with James Joyce, Virginia Wolff, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompson, who took it a step further and invented gonzo journalism.

The best way to organize your thoughts is to write them down

Writing things down helps you clarify your own thinking so that you can communicate your ideas clearly to others. Because you write so much slower than you think, the act of writing gives you time to think, which allows you to better understand your own thoughts. Get the thoughts down first, worry about the best way to say them later. Write in chunks. Look at your paragraphs. They can be arranged many different ways, but each paragraph (or thought or idea) has to build on the previous ones. What you will often find is that what you are really trying to say – the point you are really trying to get across – is the last thing you said. One good rule of thumb is when you think you’re done, move your last paragraph to the top. 

The Rule of Three

Regular readers know that I am a big fan of using threes, what many consider to be a magic number. Presenting ideas, themes and examples in groups of three takes advantage of our brain’s desire to find and recognize patterns. Three data points is the smallest number that we can find patterns in. 

Once you are aware of the properties of things that come in threes, you see them everywhere

Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a familiar set of threes from childhood. The chairs were too big, too small and just right; the porridge too hot, too cold, just right. The structure is that the first is wrong for some reason, the second is wrong for another reason (usually the opposite of the first), and the third one, in the middle, is just right. Like Goldilocks, many of us are turned off by extremes. If things are too radically different, too hard to understand, too weird, we reject them outright. On the other hand, it something is exactly the same as what is already happening, it’s dull and boring. In between, it’s just right.

The three part structure is at the heart of expository writing

Expository writing is the type used to explain and educate more than the types that are used to entertain or persuade. It is a laying out of the facts so readers can decide for themselves. The formula is a simple one, written by a preacher in 1908 when asked his method of sermon preparation.

  1. Here’s what I’m going to tell you.
  2. Here it is.
  3. Here’s what I told you.
You know the first part as an introduction

Properly written, this tells people what’s coming and sets their expectations. You tell people what’s coming so they are prepared for it and don’t have to waste any time wondering what this is about. The last part is the summary, a brief and concise review of the high points, the important things you want the reader to take away.

Here are some stream of consciousness thoughts on threes:
  • Snap, Crackle, Pop
  • Harpo, Chico and Groucho
  • Larry, Moe and Curly
  • Simon, Theodore and Alvin
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Bacon, lettuce and tomato
  • Kukla, Fran and Ollie
  • Wynken, Blynken and Nod
  • The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria
  • Rock, paper, scissors
  • On your mark, get set, go
  • and for all you Fifth Dimension fans, here’s their 1967 video of Up, Up and Away

Have a safe and happy holiday and I’ll see you next year.

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