Writing off the Cuff
By Scott Warner
Copyright © 2007 by Scott Warner, All Rights Reserved
Great nonfiction wows. Reading it is
like watching a presenter who fires off one great idea after another
while barely glancing at his PowerPoint presentation or his notes. It's
like he's speaking off the cuff.
To write nonfiction that wows, consider
writing off the cuff.
The American Heritage Dictionary
defines the transitive verb wow as "to have a strong, usually
pleasurable effect on." The opposite of turgid term papers that induce
typing torpor, great nonfiction brims with ideas, explanations, and a
flush of excitement. Done well, it is just as riveting as a thriller.
Done well, it "wows."
defines the phrase off the cuff as "with little or no preparation;
extemporaneous; impromptu." At first glance, this may appear to be an
outline vs. no-outline argument. An outline, after all, involves
planning and preparation. But why and how an outline is used is largely
a matter of the writer's preference. Some writers use them and some
don't. It can also depend on the material. An outline is a tool meant
to organize your thoughts at whatever level you choose. It doesn't
affect your ability to write off the cuff.
Writing off the cuff can convey a sense
that you can't wait to tell the reader your ideas. To write nonfiction
that wows, you'll want to communicate a sense of excitement and urgency
about your material
It may be easier to write off the cuff,
too. You record your thoughts however you feel comfortable. When you
review your draft, what you've written will make sense. Your emotion,
not the exposition, will shine through. You'll be excited about what
you've written, and it'll show. In short, you'll make the material
How do you write off the cuff?
It's about conveying the excitement you
feel for your ideas, but you do need the ideas. You'll need knowledge
of your subject of sufficient depth to make a few connections ahead of
time. Think of a woodworker who understands the properties of his
materials and capabilities of his tools before he shapes a piece of
furniture. Not understanding his material, no matter how excited he is,
produces only firewood.
If you don't understand your material
ahead of time, writing off the cuff can produce rambling, garbled prose
that will create more work for you in the long run. Like the speaker
who seems to discover a great idea in front of him, you want to uncover
connections in your material as you write about your topic, freeing your
mind from its structure. The excitement you feel will be communicated
to the reader.
You'll also need to connect emotionally
to your material. If it were an engineering design, your nonfiction
would be plotted with CAD software with precise angles and to scale.
But it isn't. It's ideas brought together to make a point. The more
passionately you make the point, the more excitement you convey to the
This sense of excitement is the reason
Cosmos is still run on cable channels. Carl Sagan isn't just
reciting facts. He seems to be discovering new ideas while we watch,
and he appears genuinely amazed. (Billions and billions!) He manages
to bring the material alive in a way that still wows audiences.
Try this: write a short essay about a
topic you know intimately -- perhaps an aspect of your job or favorite
hobby. Make certain that you choose material you know well enough to
rarely refer to notes, if at all. Make any outline a list of talking
points that you want to touch on. Then just write and see what happens.
For a second essay, select a topic you
know very little about. Do you approach it differently? More to the
point: which is more enjoyable to write, and which more likely to wow
The former may wow readers, because you
are wowed. Writers who are interested in their subject are more
interesting to read.
Finally, consider that if off the cuff
writing frees your mind to wander and connect ideas for kicks, a sense
of play between your experience and enthusiasm will show in your words,
even if the ideas are later edited out. You'll gain a sense of how much
preparation time you'll need beforehand to allow the material to reach a
critical mass to generate that excitement. You'll look for new insight
in your writing and get more out of the process.
You may find that an off the cuff
approach doesn't always make great nonfiction. It's an approach that
may not work for you. But you won't know unless you try.