Think First, Write Later

New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse, listed as endangered with the help of a Species Status Assessment. Image by Jennifer Frey.

New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse, listed as endangered with the help of a Species Status Assessment. Image by Jennifer Frey.


For the past few months, I have been learning about a new document type called Species Status Assessments (SSAs). My learnings are resulting in some interesting writing tips that I’m excited to share with you.

SSAs are a process resulting in a document used by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in a variety of listing decisions. Listing is the legal process by which a species is determined whether or not to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, and it entails numerous decisions, all of which are based on a complex biological assessment about the species’ needs, its status, its threats, and its viability.

Previously, the biological assessment was bound with the decision in a series of complicated regulatory documents. The Service is now using the SSA to make the biological assessment. Decisions, along with their regulatory mechanisms, can then be made separately in a more streamlined fashion.

As a conservationist, I am excited about this development because I think ultimately it will help the Service to protect threatened and endangered species more efficiently. As a composition instructor, I am delighted to see the Service adopt a writing practice that I have been preaching since 2007. Here’s what I mean:

The SSA is a process that culminates in a document. The process stresses gathering the best commercial and scientific data and analyzing it using a variety of scientific models. The analysis should be conducted without drafting a document.

All too often, scientific and technical writers rely on document drafting to figure out what we want to say. This practice is laborious and inefficient. Moreover, it results in documents that are poorly organized and difficult to decipher. But we continue to work this way because we have never been taught otherwise.

The SSA process forces writers with the Service to use a sounder approach to document drafting. They have to gather information, think it through, and organize it before writing about it. This is the process I teach in a course called Eight Weeks to Writing with Clarity, illustrated in the model below:

The Writing Cycle

The Writing Cycle is an iterative process with a clear beginning and end. It’s okay to move back and forth between single steps. But try not to make large jumps, such as from step 1 to step 4.

Without trying to condense eight weeks of instruction into a single blog post, here are a few strategies to get started:

Freewriting – Freewriting is a strategy that allows you to capture a lot of language in a short period of time. Much of it is free-associative, so it may not be directly relevant to the document you’re working on right now. Still, it can help to reduce or eliminate writer’s block and discover new ideas.

Give yourself a topic that is connected to your writing project and set a time limit, ideally less than five minutes. During that time, you can write by hand or type your response, provided that you do not stop writing or typing. If you cannot think of what to say, write or type, “I cannot think of what to say.” Theoretically, your brain will at some point take over and begin producing content.

Mindmapping – Like freewriting, mindmapping is a free-associative technique. It is visual, rather than linear, so it works for a different type of learner. For this reason, mindmapping encourages color and images in addition to language. Keep in mind, however, that the goal of a mindmap is to produce a written document, so it does not pay to spend too much time perfecting the artistic detail.

Mindmapping works by starting with a central topic, which you place in the middle of the page. You then begin drawing lines radiating from this topic to other, loosely associated topics. Continue doing so, radiating from subtopics until you run out of ideas. Because of the finished product’s appearance, the technique is also called clustering or spidering.

Diagram your work – Both freewriting and mindmapping are brainstorming techniques. Before you start drafting, spend some time organizing your raw material. You can do this using a traditional Roman numeral outline. I prefer using a series of visual diagrams.

Diagrams such as flow charts, comparisons, Venns, or exploration trees help me to see the way my ideas are organized. I can assign numbers or letters to the topics in the order I intend to present them. I can also insert transitional words or phrases that remind me how the logic flows. Drafting then becomes a simple matter of translation from the schematic to the word processor, with the raw data coming from my research notes.

Draft without judgment – A first draft is just that: a draft. Your goal is to complete the document as quickly as possible, with all the necessary information, in a somewhat logical order. Do not agonize over word choice. Ignore spelling and grammar completely. If need be, leave gaps in sentence structure. I will often write something like this in a first draft:

While [data re plain language efficacy], the field remains bifurcated by proponents and detractors who [insist / require / debate] the “right” way to approach the topic.

Recognize that it will be revised, and leave yourself time to do so.

Revise extensively – Drafting is just one stage in the writing process. Revision is another. When you start drafting just hours before a document is due, you set yourself up for failure. Establish an internal timeline for yourself so that you have the time to draft AND revise.

Revision starts by seeing your work with fresh eyes. Time is the best way to gain that perspective, but if you don’t have time, you can fool yourself by putting the document into a different font, reading it out loud, or working in a fresh environment such as your building’s lobby.

Want to learn more? I welcome the chance to talk with training coordinators about how you can bring courses such as Eight Weeks to Writing with Clarity to your organization. I also coach and edit writers of dissertations and academic journal articles. Schedule a free consultation to talk with me today!



  1. Nathan Allan says

    As always, thanks for your great insights, Michelle.
    “As a composition instructor, I am delighted to see the Service adopt a writing practice that I have been preaching since 2007.”
    This is, of course, no accident! Your influence on me, and our organization as a whole, is paying off in this process. Because of you, we’re trying to preach: “No analysis by writing!”
    But, I have to admit, it’s easier said than done. We are so ingrained to jump right to the writing that it is tough to separate the thinking and analysis from the documentation. But we’re working on it and making great strides.
    Today’s blog will be a huge help to many of our biologists!

  2. Nathan – easier said than done is absolutely correct! I look forward to watching your training team (maybe helping your training team) develop these skills in your biologists. Exciting times!

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