Long Pressed #6: COMPOSE

Written communication should be top of mind for any modern business continuing to adapt to the challenges of remote work. Andy Matuschak said that there are ten designers working on refining existing patterns for every one designer working to discover new patterns. The ratio for refining to discovering new writing patterns is probably closer to 1000:1.

This week's guest pattern, COMPOSE, was developed by Writing.coach founders Ellen Fishbein, Dr. William Jaworski, and Samuel Nightengale after more than 20,000 hours of collaboration with hundreds of writers. You can find COMPOSE in its original format here.


COMPOSE stands for:

C = Concept 🔥 Your subject in general.
O = Objective 🚀 What you want your reader to think, feel, do, or understand.
M = Material 🎨📚🧩 The definitions, descriptions, stories, arguments, data, and examples you'll need to meet your objective.
P = Plan ♟ A flexible sketch of how the material will come together.
O = Organization 🏛 The precise order in which you'll present the material.
S = Style 🕶 Your unique voice expressed in writing that's fun to read.
E = Elegance 🥋 The ultimate polish that makes hard work look easy.

Using COMPOSE

Writing well involves executing all 7 steps of COMPOSE (not necessarily in order). By executing COMPOSE mindfully and repeatedly, you'll get better at sidestepping and solving these problems every time you write.

Concept: Your subject in general

Your Concept answers the question, "What are you writing about?"

Find inspiration in something that stands out as important or meaningful - something you did, felt, learned, witnessed, or discussed with someone. A powerful Concept is something

  • You're excited to think or talk about

  • You notice excites others as well

  • You understand well or want to understand better

  • You innately learn more about through discussion with others

By the end of the Concept phase, you'll have a jumble of interesting ideas - a "primordial soup" of thoughts with the potential to carry you to the final product.

Objective: What you want your reader to think, feel, do, or understand

A promising concept can take you in many directions. Pick the best one.

Think about your readers and what you want to communicate to them. Ask yourself, "What am I trying to get my reader to think, feel, do, or understand?"

What is your Objective?

Maybe you want the reader to learn a new skill, buy something, believe something, empathize with you, laugh, or offer you a job. Your Objective can also aim at personal growth - understanding something better yourself. The quest is no less worthy.

Projects don't survive without a clear Objective. Yours will lead you from a blank page to the final draft.

Material: The definitions, descriptions, stories, arguments, data, and examples you'll need to achieve your Objective

What's going to get your readers to think, feel, or do what you intend? How will you achieve your Objective?

Your aim during the Material phase is to build an inventory of everything that can help. You'll use your own words and go One Level Deeper to process the things you've researched, learned, thought about, experienced, discussed, or imagined. Nothing has to be in order yet; just lay it out in front of you.

Even if you don’t end up using a particular anecdote or bit of research, writing it down isn't a waste. It’s a rehearsal. If you take the time to play with your ideas, you’ll understand them more deeply, and your performance will be better for it.

Plan: A flexible sketch of how the Material will come together

Outlines are a waste of time. They're too linear, granular, and inflexible to help at this stage. Don't marry yourself to a particular structure yet.

Instead of an outline, make a high-level Plan - a few sentences, a drawing, or something else that gives you a clear sense of your main points and core material. Plan to cover the essential points, and only the essential points.

Organization: The precise order in which you present the material

Just as random letters don't make words, and random words don't make sentences, random material doesn't make a message your readers can understand. Your material needs to be organized in a way that readers can follow.

Organization is determined in part by your Objective. If you’re writing a how-to guide, your material is ordered into steps for readers to follow. If you’re telling a story, the events you’re describing are ordered in time. If you’re trying to prove a point, your ideas are organized logically - some of them provide support or evidence for others.

Longer pieces of writing will often have parts with different kinds of Organization. For example, you might incorporate a narrative into an argument that supports your thesis.

Style: Your unique voice expressed in writing that is fun to read

Effective writing captures not just what you want to say, but how you want to say it—your unique voice. 

Style includes all the tricks, tools, and techniques that make writing fun to read. That toolbox includes advice you heard in school: use the active voice, avoid adverbs, master punctuation, and use verb phrases instead of abstract nouns. 

What they probably didn't tell you in school is that Style matters only at a late stage in the writing process. It’s only when you’re really sure about what you want to say that you should start thinking about how to say it. Style comes only after you've worked through COMPO.

Elegance: The ultimate polish that makes hard work look easy

“Beauty walks a razor’s edge; someday I’ll make it mine.” - Bob Dylan

If you’re reading something that’s not only meaningful, but also fun and memorable, you’re not looking at a first draft. More likely, it’s the 100th draft. It takes hard work to produce an elegant result. That’s why elegance signals competence.

We aspire to elegance—for your work as much as our own. We test each composition, paragraph, and sentence by asking: is this as smooth and simple as we can make it? 

Writers reach elegance the way martial artists reach the black belt. Your work will become more elegant the more you practice COMPOSE, and that will set you apart as a writer.

Problems

Omitting critical steps of the writing process causes us to try to write a final, refined piece too early or quickly.

Struggling to turn low-fidelity notes and research into thoughtful writing.

Not knowing how to Make Progress when trying to write, getting "stuck".

Related Patterns

In Templating Time we cover a technique for planning your time that might be able to help with the Plan stage of COMPOSE.

In Writing Stack we talk about how we leverage different levels of fidelity of writing about the same Material to help Organize writing and meet our communication Objectives.

Tools

A lot of the steps of COMPOSE rely on nonlinear thinking. There are plenty of Tools for Thought that can help such as Roam Research.

Further Reading


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