Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

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."

American Heritage 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 uniquely yours.

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 reader.

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 reader?

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.