Cubing, Reading, and Compiling – 3 Ways of Getting Started

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A Bi-Weekly Tweet Chat for Professionals Who Write

On Thursday May 17, Shakirah Dawud and I held our bi-weekly tweet chat, Writing Matters. In past conversations, we focused on the Writer’s Triangle, discussing matters of context, author, audience, and purpose for professionals who write. In this edition we talked about process, specifically the beginning stages of writing a document.

Shakirah and I are responsible for very different document types and that affects our writing process. Obviously for small documents, whether they be emails, memos or short articles, a few moments of quiet contemplation can set you on the right track. Those first three stages of the writing process – brainstorming, selecting, and arranging – are easy to do mentally when the document is short. For longer documents, a more formal process is useful. Shakirah for example writes white papers, research reports, and ebooks, and for those she usually compiles smaller pieces of writing that she’s done in preparation for the large report.

In other words, Shakirah puts the arrangement piece first, seeing the topics as separate pieces waiting to be conveyed to her audience. Then she considers the elements of The Writing Triangle, most importantly her audience, to decide how to convey the information in a way that will be most compelling to them. She defines her process in a little more detail in an article called “Copywriting Process? What Copywriting Process?

My own approach to writing is a little bit schizophrenic because I am responsible for documents of radically different types. In my own work as a literary scholar, I write journal articles of approximately 30 pages. I also teach government scientists how to write scientific regulatory documents that range from 45 to upwards of 300 pages. So I have a number of tools that I use for brainstorming. And the key to any one of the tools is to be sure to capture language along the way so that when the process of selecting, arranging, and most importantly writing begins, I have the words to work with and not just vague, remembered thoughts from a conference call.

One area that’s particularly challenging is something called the literature review. Should I conduct it at the outset of my brainstorming process or after I’ve reasoned my way through the argument? Sometimes I find that the literature review is a way of generating ideas, finding useful things to say, and opening up possible avenues of research and discussion. At other times I find, particularly if I’m engrossed in an idea or if I have a line of thought firmly implanted that the literature review detracts from my own thought process. I find it challenging to see how I’m going to weave other people’s ideas into my own text. And so it actually becomes a source of writer’s block for me.

To cope, I parse my reactions and opinions from those that I find in the author’s text. I also make sure that I allow myself lots of time and space, often going on long walks while I dictate my own evolving reactions to the argument that I’m trying to present.

Finally, Shakirah and I talked about a less disciplined, more free-flowing technique called cubing, which is one of many techniques that I teach designed to loosen up a writer’s own approach towards an idea or topic. Cubing is an approach that asks you to see a topic as though it were inside of a three-dimensional cube, and then place yourself on all six planes as though you were six different categories or groups of people looking at the topic from a different perspective.

Red Legged Tree Frog

So for example, if you’re a government biologist charged with writing a biological assessment of the red-legged tree frog, you would imagine that the red-legged tree frog is suspended inside of a glass cube, and you’re outside of it being a government biologist.

If you move to another side of the cube, you are now one of the many aspects of the ecosystem in which this frog resides. Perhaps you are one level in the food chain above the frog, dependent upon this frog as a food source. Now on the third side of the cube, you are one level below the frog on the food chain, and the frog is a threat to you and your family.

On the fourth side of the cube might be other aspects of the ecosystem that are affected by the frog. Maybe its nesting habits clear some waste from a pond area. Maybe it excretes a waste that is beneficial to plant growth. Or perhaps it’s a dangerous, invasive, or injurious species.

And then on the fifth side, think about the people that inhabit that ecosystem. Are they benefitting or not from that frog’s presence? Does the frog make an irritating noise that keeps them up at night? Is there a developer trying to create a housing development and that frog’s presence is blocking his or her access? Would that development benefit the community in which everyone lives? And then the sixth side might be future generations that could possibly benefit from knowing this frog, its habits and behaviors, and its beauty, its special place in our world.

Now, as a government scientist, you may be charged with neutrality that disallows these considerations from your final decision. But during the brainstorming stages to at least acknowledge that those factors exist and to consider whether they can or should be taken into account is a valuable exercise.

How do you wrap your brain around the complexity of a big writing project? We’d love to hear from you! And remember, our next #WrMatters Tweet Chat will be May 31st at 4 pm ET. Please join us as we continue the conversation. We understand that your writing makes a difference, and we’d like to support you.


  1. I write all sort of things, from small reviews through scientific papers (where there are usually multiple objectives) to scientific ebooks that archive new theory, to fiction. I think the very first thing is to decide what the objective(s) is (are) and then decide on an overall structure, i.e. before starting to write, I have a semi-plan in the back of my mind of what the finished article will look like and the sort of style I shall need to achieve it. I think it is a lot easier to write if you have visualized where you will end up. What I then have to do is put on the correct “emotional hat” and visualize the specific audience, and mentally start talking to them, then mentally “read” out what I intend to write. This enables me to get the appropriate style into my head. Then I recommend starting writing. I know what I want to say, so, why not say it? Of course it does not always turn out right, which is why the rewrite is so important, but I still think getting started in the right frame of mind is important. If you spend too much time planning, there is a danger of simply confusing yourself and making everything too complicated.

    • Ian – so good to hear from you again. I like the reminder that a vision of the end product is necessary to have and to hold as it were throughout the process. I do tend to sketch an outline, an audience, and a purpose, perhaps even a publication venue and a timeline on a single sheet of paper before I begin.
      Sounds like you’re a bit of an aural learner. I tend to talk a lot of my writing, and I make heavy use of dictation equipment – nothing fancy. I still have an old-fashioned microcassette recorder, the kind that my lawyer boss used to use when I was a legal secretary working my way through undergrad. I alternate between that and my Blackberry’s voice notes feature.
      When I have a particularly thorny argument, I have trouble sitting still. I find that physical activity helps me engage with the material, so I often go for a walk, or start weeding my garden.
      And I agree that so much of writing is rewriting. I will often run through 3-4 drafts before I’m ready to “REVISE”.

  2. When I was in college (many moons ago, now)I could equally write technical psychological and statistical reports as well as poetry and historical fiction. And, I could write commentary on classical symphonies…all equally well.

    As I got older and no longer lived in an educational vacuum, the technological style dropped off…mainly because I was reduced to the verbage of developing children. When my children graduated from high school, I bought myself a book on vocabulary building and used it faithfully! Reading had always been important to our family, and even when the kids were in college, I still found time to listen to them read aloud and then reciprocate.

    Writing, however, took its form of historical narrative. And when I started working with genealogy and family history, my work developed into historical memoir. I have never actually completed a book; although, I do have the notes and research for two tucked away in about three file cabinets and another that I am working on now in about seven 3-inch binders and 3 file boxes.

    I suppose I have been cubing for years and not even known what to call it. When working with a character, I try to imagine all the different influences on his/her life, including internal and external motivators. When I look back at my technical papers I think they were so intellectual sounding, and even made some very good points (my specialties were organizational psychology & family and child counseling); but they lacked humanness. For me they were too easy. And now, using psychological techniques in analyzing real life characters, I find that I have met my challenge.

    I believe I am also like your friend in that I tend to write things in sections: family history, church history, occupational history, social history, military history, legal history, etc. I put them all together on a timeline and then calendar them. I try to determine how other close family members and neighbors affected their daily lives, as well as how “outsiders” affected the major events in their lives.

    I draw diagrams and maps; and then, after compiling each section, put it together. After a rest period of a couple months, I take it out and edit.

    I have been following your blog for several months, along with another entitled, Live Write Thrive. Both have helped me overcome obstacles I had been stuck on in the past. Hopefully, this time I will succeed and complete a finished work acceptable for publication!

    • Debra – delighted that you finally decided to share. It’s good to hear from you! I think it’s exceptionally difficult to write well in a topic area when you’re not immersed in it daily. I know that when I was grading freshmen papers, for example, I had to put aside my dissertation writing for a few days or weeks lest I introduce egregious errors into my text akin to the ones I was redlining all day and night.
      One challenge to writing independently is the realization that a piece of writing is never done, only due. And without an outside authority figure to state, here is your deadline, that due date can perpetually be delayed. Let me be one voice among many, I’m sure, to say, resist the siren’s song of perfection. Take the work you have done and find a way to let it see the light.
      And thank you for sharing your process. I think there are so many of us working on large projects (or procrastinating on large projects) that need a practical method. We need all the help we can get. It takes courage to realize we are not alone in our endeavors.


  1. […] Hello Short Stuff! Posted by Corporate Writing Pro on May 29, 2012 Leave a comment (0) Go to comments On Thursday, May 31st at 4 pm, Shakirah Dawud and I will host our bi-weekly Tweet Chat, #WrMatters. In our last conversation, we discussed how to begin a large writing project. You can see our suggestions on Shakirah’s blog post, Copywriting Process? What Copywriting Process? and on mine, Cubing, Reading, and Compiling – 3 Ways of Getting Started. […]

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