Margins: Organizing Ideas

Organizing Ideas

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I am a very structural writer and editor. I’ve never been one to just sit down and start dumping words onto paper or screen. Nor do I want to read other people’s stream of consciousness ramblings.

I need an outline to get started some sort of working rhetorical framework. Only after I’ve figured out the story I want to tell and how I’m going to get there do I start writing actual sentences around that scaffolding. And this is true whether I’m writing a 3 sentence email or a white paper. Otherwise, it’s just too easy for me to lose focus.

I know that not everyone processes information and organizes their ideas in the same way, though. So for this episode of Margins, Elena and I reached out to three people who have mastered their own techniques for organizing and communicating big, complex ideas: Florida International University media scholars Susan Jacobson, Elizabeth Marsh and best-selling novelist Mackenzi Lee.

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Building Resonance

Susan Jacobson is co-director of the Stephen Cruz Institute for Media, Science, and Technology, which connects top communications professionals and researchers with scientists and technology experts, all in the name of better public understanding of science. 

Her colleague, Elizabeth Marsh is Associate Chair in the Department of Communication at FIU, and her research focuses on the use of social media to communicate nuanced messages such as those required for effective science communication. Together, they work on effectively communicating the urgency around climate change, which is no small task.

You might think that’s ridiculous given how much money and effort goes into scientific research, but Susan says “no one gives a thought about finding ways to communicate some of this very valuable information to the public.”

For Elizabeth, this has been a drastic failure on the part of scientists in the fight against climate change. Elizabeth says, “We live in Miami and there is a very pressing scientific problem that's going to drown all of our homes and it's important to us that this is communicated... and clearly scientists have not been doing a terribly good job communicating with people.”

So how can scientists communicate their complicated findings to the broader community? Susan says scientists need to boil down their findings to an elevator pitch. Susan suggests scientists include “not only just the nugget of what they’re talking about, but it’s also why it is important to me, the general public, in two or three sentences.”

Synthesizing Ideas

Mackenzi Lee is a historical fiction and YA author who is currently writing a series of books featuring Marvel anti-heroes. The second book in the series, “Gamora & Nebula: Sisters in Arms,” has just been released. She talked to me about how she organizes her ideas.

Mackenzi’s process for writing her books is anything but linear. Her process changes with every book she writes, and she often has a running list of ideas she wants to include. “The thing that seems the most consistent about my process is I tend to collect ideas and little fragments of things. I will have kind of a living document on my phone and my computer that anytime anything enters my field of vision, I will write it down,” she says.

Her ideas can be from anything. Women with swords in the 1700s or sunken train cars at the bottom of the ocean have both made her idea list. For Mackenzi, collecting her ideas in a document allows different ideas to “magnetize and pull together.” She explains that “it's never one moment of inception. It's more a lot of things collected over time that then eventually end up synthesizing.”

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Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Rep Cap. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. You can find Mary Ellen on Twitter @MESlayter.

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