Which Comes First, Word or Thought?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The answer may seem simple: of course, it's thought! But when the first word is comprehended, the question becomes more complex. Linguist Noam Chomsky says that language generates its own structure and therefore, thought.

When sitting down to write something, whether it's an article, e-mail, blog post etc. do you just type away and come to your own conclusions as you type? Or do you think about what you're going to write first, then figure out the best plan of attack?

When writing for, say, blogs, business, or even fiction, it's good to ask yourself a few questions before you dive right in. Today I'm going to talk about writing for business, specifically business letters (emails) and how these points relate to that subject. Now, business can be almost anything: an email to a co-worker, publication, or even a comment on a blog post--but remember, you can use these basic points for anything you write.

What is your purpose?

Your answer may be simple: to write an email to a client, or to schedule a meeting. Yet, even with these simple intentions, you still have to think about what you want to get across to the reader.

Yesterday I was replying to an email, and as I was typing I realized that I was being way too wordy. I looked back at what I wrote before I hit the send button and thought, do they really need to know all that? There were two paragraphs that contained important information, but also a lot of fluff in between. I tend to be too chatty when emailing, which is fine for a friend, but for a first-meeting business email, it was a little overwhelming. I took the two points I needed from the paragraphs and crafted them into one sentence--then ditched the rest. Just because I like to be conversational, doesn't mean other people will enjoy my ramblings!

So ask yourself: Can I get my point across in one simple declarative sentence?

Who are you writing to?

Think of your readers first, instead of thinking of yourself.


If the reader is sympathetic to your message, first appeal to their emotions, then to their logical thinking (feelings first; facts follow)


If the reader already doesn't want to read what you have to say, appeal to their logical thinking, then to their emotions (facts first; feelings follow).


If the reader doesn't care one way or the other about what they're about to read (for instance, a sales letter, a query to an editor or agent etc.) then appeal to their interests, and write something dynamic to capture their attention.

If they don't know you, emphasize your credentials and the things that you and your reader have in common.

What's your message?

There are many ways to structure your message, and you should think about the most effective way to present the material. Are you describing a set of steps to get a task done, or presenting a list of priorities? Then you'd need to structure your message in chronological order.

What about medium?

Would it be better to make a phone call, or meet in person? Snail mail or email? Do you need to show presentation materials or other things to illustrate a point?

Other important questions to ask yourself:

What is the best way to engage your readers, hold their attention, and influence their thinking or behavior?

How can you persuade them to accept your point of view or take action?

Think first, then write:
  • Think through your purpose.
  • Write for your audience.
  • Choose the most effective material for your purpose.
Remember, these are very basic guidelines, and they certainly don't include everything, but as long as you question yourself before you write, your writing will become tighter, precise, and your vision clear.

PS. I still didn't answer the question of the chicken or the egg! But I guess it all depends on your thought process. ;-)


Sue said...

This post provides some good reminders, Angela. Many blogs on the web don't seem to have clear focal points; many seem like numerous layers of disconnected streams of consciousness. I'm not saying that this is a bad way to write. In fact, it's a great way--where the thought begins the whole process.

But I like how, for WOW!, you ask bloggers to follow a thread of consciousness that weaves along women writers' journeys, balancing writing with work and life, and so many other related topics, whether published or aspiring. This thread alone can bear the weight of so many diverse thoughts and, the most fun part, comes in playing off of different writers' ideas.

Teresa M said...


I really enjoyed this post about why and how you should write. I enjoy writing as well and ask myself these questions, however, it is good to remind writers of these questions.
I am enjoying reading your blog and hope that you will stop by mine as well sometime.


Teresa Morrow

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