From knowing what you want to do to actually doing it

It’s that time of year when one’s attention turns to writing. In the past couple of weeks I’ve had several conversations about books; mostly other peoples’, which is also good.

Those conversations have prompted me to think a bit more about how you translate an idea into a thing.

Regular readers will know that I often start with asking ‘what are you trying to achieve?’: it’s good for teaching, for communication, for lots of things. After all, if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, how can you do it?

But that rather ignores the subsequent challenge: even if you know what your goals are, turning that into a plan of practical action is not automatic.

Writing is a case in point, especially if we’re thinking about long-form text, like books.

Case in point is the renewed discussion with a colleague about a new edition of a short introduction to the EU.

Since we’ve not worked together on this project before, we’re taking the opportunity to go for a wholesale reworking, rather than a update-the-graphs-and-examples.

But how to go about that?

It seems to me that there are three main options, each with advantages and disadvantages.

The classic model is the long-run-up approach. You set out all the Things You Need To Know, so the reader knows all the Things, and only towards the back end of the text do you get to more synthetic analysis.

This is comprehensive, but also suffers from the same issue as when we try it in class: it’s not very engaging, mainly because there’s lots of content where’s it’s not evident why it matters.

So we could jump to the opposite model and build out from an engaging vignette. Think Freakonomics.

Yes, the “this weird thing tells us so much” approach is much more stimulating, but if you’re aiming to generate a rounded overview, then unless you get really lucky, your weird thing(s) is/are unlikely to cover all the bases, making it either scrappy or incomplete.

So the third path is the strong analytical frame. Here you’re driven not by A Weird Thing, but a Big Idea. For me, Hix and Hoyland‘s volume is the best example of this, taking the reader around the EU, guided by a very clear theoretical framing. You’re clear from the off about why you’re reading what you’re reading and how it all fits together.

The difficulty here is, obviously, that there’s more than one way to look at things. Any theoretical framing comes with normative agendas of some kind. Even if that’s an inoffensive agenda (as in Hix and Hoyland’s book), it can hinder the development of the reader’s critical engagement, something that matters with political subject matter.

There’s no right answer to this and I’m still turning over options with my co-author. However, as you do your own writing, it’s worth considering whether there’s value in changing approach, not because it’ll be better but because it’ll be different, letting your readers get something they might otherwise have missed out on.