What am I trying to Say? Don’t ask that!


Narrow it down first.

Ask, “What kind of thing am I trying to Say?”

I’m sure at different times you’ve been writing, feeling you are missing the one thing that would make it so much easier to see how things fit together. The one thing that would help you decide what to include and what to cut. The one thing that would allow you to know what to write next, or even what to write at all.

And we all know what that one thing is.

Our argument. Our thesis. Our point. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And it is sweet. Don’t get me wrong.

But sometimes we just find ourselves a little lost, and asking “What am I trying to Say?”

And that’s a good question. It’s a great question. It’s the perfect question because the answer to that makes it all so much easier. So ask this question and answer it. Absolutely you should do that.

There’s just one problem:

What do you do when no answer comes?

Classically trained writers—which is almost no academic writers today alive, unless they specifically sought it out, or are, like, in one of those tiny classics departments I hear rumors about their existing, like Bigfoot—don’t struggle as much with this question.

Why? Because there is an end run around the question when we can’t find the direct answer, and that is simply to know, or choose, and become clear about, what kind of thing we are saying.

What are we trying to say has infinite possibilities, but what kind has few.

So my super power tip from writers of yore is to choose your kind of argument first, then start to think of how to phrase it.

Here are your candidates, and if you are having troubles the rule is–

YOU MUST choose one and ONLY ONE as the primary function of the piece:

  1. Narrative: you are telling a story
  2. Description: depicting or evoking some thing
  3. Process: you are explaining or depicting steps in a transformation or action
  4. Definition: you are clarifying your concept or phenomena, in disctinction to other things and idea.
  5. Classification: you separating like phenomena or concepts by a more minute distinction between them.
  6. Compare or Contrast: sorting similarities and differences between phenomena
  7. Cause and effect: explaining how one thing causes or acted upon another

Now back when many of us were taught to just sit down, explore, and let it rip, this kind of classification would seem archaic, stilted, limiting to creativity, etc.

But at the times when we are struggling it’s better to bite the bullet and commit. If you don’t know what you are saying, then know what is the primary type of function of the thing you are writing, and commit to that. Then, it might be possible to answer the big question either before, during, or after the writing.

Choose one of the seven kinds! It gets easier after that.