Does writing come easy to you or do you struggle with every sentence? Do you plan & outline first, or do you prefer to write away and see where you get? There are two opposite approaches to writing — and to life in general. Learn what type of writer you are, and how you can draw upon your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
Imagine you get lost in a new city. What do you do? Do you use a map to find directions? Or do you rather ask someone nearby? When you buy a new gadget, do you first check out the manual before you touch it? Or do you try it out immediately, and get to the manual only if something is not working (and no one can help)?
There are two opposite ways how to handle information and solve problems. You can either start with the concrete and move to the abstract: the bottom-up approach. Or you start with the abstract and move to the concrete: the top-down approach.
From abstract to concrete or from concrete to abstract?
The top-down folks like to plan and organize. They like to use maps and don’t shy from instruction manuals: they like to have an overview. The bottom-up people are just the opposite: they prefer to act spontaneously and to try things out instead of reading & talking about them. They like to dive into a situation and experience it on their own.
Different societies might have different preference for one of the types. For example, the authors Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron contrast the French and American approach in their book Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French in the following way:
The French prefer to map things out completely before taking action. [..] Only when they have an intellectual control of all aspects of a plan do they feel confident enough to implement it.
This behavior corresponds to the top-down type. On the other hand, Americans seem to prefer the bottom-up approach:
Americans do not work from theory. They value specifics, use these concrete examples to develop a theory or abstraction that accounts for the findings. [..] Americans make decisions and implement them rapidly, making adjustments as they go.
Now, this does not mean that every American or French person conforms to this stereotype. Even if one type is strongly favored in a society, including the education system, both types are typically present. It seems that these types are inborn — but you can train yourself in the other strategy as well (more on that later).
On a similar note, you could think that those who work top-down become engineers and bottom-up people want to be artists — but you would be surprised if you would check it out. I was definitely surprised when I realized how many bottom-up scientists work in computational neuroscience, which is a very “nerdy” field dominated by mathematicians and theoretical physicists.
From structure to words or from words to structure?
The top-down and bottom-up approaches manifest in writing as well. The top-down writers proceed from structure to words: first, they think & plan thoroughly and create a detailed outline. They rarely start writing before they know exactly what they are going to say. And even then they often postpone the writing, fiddling around with their outline. Or time plan. Or daily schedule…
Once they finally start writing, they typically progress slowly because they are laboring on each new sentence they create, trying to polish it to perfection. As you can guess, this behavior makes them prone to the “writer’s block”. They perceive writing as hard — although they might like “to have written”. On the other hand, they tend to produce well-structured texts that are easy to understand, even when working under a tight deadline. Albeit the texts often sound rather dry and impersonal… (Academia, do you recognize your ideal?)
The bottom-up writers proceed from words to structure. They start writing before they know exactly what they want to say — they will figure out their point along the way. They can write down a first draft quickly: writing comes easy to them and, typically, they like to write.
However, they don’t plan much beforehand, so they often get side-tracked as new ideas arise. It is hard for them to write short and to the point: their texts tend to be insufficiently structured, so it is often hard for the readers to follow. Albeit their texts are lively and engaging. In order to improve a text, the bottom-up writers tend to rewrite whole texts from scratch, which is inefficient and problematic when facing an approaching deadline.
Creative and organized: you can have it both
As you see, both types have their specific advantages and disadvantages. The good news: you can learn to compensate for the weaknesses of your type and harness the advantages of the other type! Yes, you can be creative and organized — though not at the same time.
The top-down writers struggle with finding words for their ideas. They need to avoid excessive structuring and learn to push themselves into writing, even though the outline is not “perfect” yet.
If this is your case, observe yourself: under which circumstances do you procrastinate on writing? Try to experiment with your environment and schedule to improve your writing productivity. You would also profit from loosening up your inner censor and allowing yourself to write “badly” in the first draft. This can be learned through the method of freewriting. Moreover, when outlining a text, use the so-called fat outline: write a complete sentence with a message for every bullet point or keyword you have. This helps you get into writing faster.
The bottom-up writers struggle with structuring their texts and ideas. They need to sort out their ideas before they start drafting, and learn to structure an already written text.
If this applies to you, try to brainstorm your ideas in form of a MindMap before writing. In a next step, try to order the ideas in an outline — but don’t see it as definite: you can adapt it as the writing proceeds (unless you are under a tight deadline: then better stick to your outline and don’t give in to new ideas if they don’t fit well into the existing structure). To structure an already written text, find a subheading for each paragraph or idea you write about, and collect all bits that belong together below the appropriate subheading. Use the subheadings to create a logical structure for your text.
How I work with my (mixed) type
Now, if you want to oppose my stereotyping and note that world is not just black and white: Of course! What I presented here are two extremes on a spectrum. And most of us are mixed types, leaning more or less strongly towards one of the two types. It’s an interesting journey to discover when you act top-down and when bottom-up.
For example, I have always loved to plan and organize. Once as a kid, I have cataloged all my posessions including details like color or size. As a PhD student, I would never touch a new software without spending days reading the documentation. My writing was slow and tedious, and writer’s block my best friend…
On the other hand, I discovered early the pleasure of acting spontaneously according to my intuition. I also realized that it is possible to “just write”, to give up the control and “let the hands write” whatever they want — which is, basically, the freewriting technique. I have enjoyed this writing style in my diaries, to sort out my thoughts and feelings. However, when I attempted to use this technique for scientific texts, I typically ended up with a messy text I was not able to improve.
But slowly, I am learning to bring these two approaches together and choose the one that suits my current situation. For example, when I write about a complex topic (like this one), I first collect my ideas in an outline, table, or diagram. However, I do not obsess anymore with finding the perfect order of the points: I try to cover one idea in each paragraph, and know that I can easily reorder the paragraphs later.
On the other hand, when I want to write something but don’t know exactly what I want to say, I just sit down and write, allowing my hands to write whatever is coming. This sometimes results in “garbage” — but along the way I figure out my point so that I can create a good outline for the second attempt. However, sometimes the first attempt results in a lively text with a nice flow that needs only minimal editing (mostly deleting). You can compare the difference in text quality (and quantity :D) for yourself: my first article on this blog was written in the top-down mode, while this article about antifragility was written in the bottom-up manner.
And what about you? Are you more top-down or more bottom-up? Did you recognize yourself in some of the described struggles? How do you approach them? Please, share your thoughts in the comments!