How I Published 100 Articles On NLP
by Dr Richard Bolstad
My Personal Addiction To Writing
I wrote my first book when I was six years old. It was an illustrated history of the world. One of my main editorial advisers at the time (my mother) pointed out to me that this story had been told before. "Find something that no-one else has written about." she advised me. I'm still looking.
Although my formal training in writing ended at age 15, I began writing for publication only when I was thirty years old. Readers of Anchor Point will know that I write quite a lot of articles now, and reaching the first century of them prompts me to finally answer the question that many other NLP trainers have asked me: "How do you do that?" As usual, this question has answers on several levels, and at several stages. This article, which is mainly personal anecdote, is my answer. I hope it will be of use to those of you who have never had something published, as well as to those of you who want to write more prolifically.
I won't claim this article will help you to write better, but it could help you to write more like me, so be careful. I've talked to quite a few well known NLP writers about the experience of writing, but mostly I just know how I do it. I believe that the characteristics of my particular writing style include:
- My aim is usually to persuade readers to do something differently, rather than just to give them ideas (for example, in this article, my aim is to encourage people to write more articles).
- I aim to reference all my main sources and to provide links to research which will back up my claims (for example I list several references at the end of this article).
- I use personal self-disclosure to illustrate points (as in the above paragraph).
Why Would You Write?
Like most articles I write, this one took me about twelve hours. I wrote it as fast as I could, as usual. I get so excited that I have to be careful to make sure I stop for food. Michael Hall says "I have to write; I cannot not write." (Hall, 2002, p 4). That's true for me too. I sure as anything know why I write. Sharing skills and understandings is central to my mission, my whole sense of why I'm here on earth. Put another way, writing and my sense of mission are inseparable. Writing helps me reach thousands of people I'll never meet. I know, from the emails that I get, that articles I wrote ten years ago are still being read for the first time by new people, often in languages I don't even speak. I couldn't do that by just talking. I also know, though, that writing is a lot like talking, and that's part of what I love about it - the excited sharing of new ideas. Writing also helps people get to know me, and that makes it easier for them to risk coming to my trainings, thus feeding my other main hobby.
What writing is not guaranteed to do is to make you rich. I get paid for each article I write for Anchor Point, but the real benefits are further on in the story, after readers have read what I wrote. That's true with books as well.
If you want to write, I strongly recommend you take the time to consider now how this activity will dovetail with your own sense of a larger purpose. That way, each time you sit down to write, that larger purpose will be there inspiring you.
What Would You Write?
Each article I write has a specific reason for its existence. This article, for instance, is written to inspire and support other NLP Practitioners in their writing. I always keep a list of about ten topics for articles I hope to get time to write soon, and the hard part for me is prioritizing.
But where do I get those ten ideas? Basically, anything I wish other people knew is something I want to write an article about. I have no interest in keeping certain skills or ideas secret. I'm often thinking; "If I died tomorrow, would people be able to work out how to understand and do everything I considered important in my life, just from what I've written?" More specifically, here are some places I recommend you check for ideas:
- Model some task that you have noticed you yourself do well, and explain it to others (eg I have described how I use presuppositional language in teaching; something I think I do well; see Bolstad, 1996)
- Invent a new frame or model for explaining something that lots of people do (eg I described the process of giving clients home tasks in a new frame which I called "Questing"; see Bolstad, 1997)
- Apply a model someone else thought of to circumstances you know lots about (eg Margot Hamblett and I applied the model of the Fourth Perceptual Position to conflict resolution; see Bolstad and Hamblett, 1999 A)
- Write an inspiring story; from either someone else's life or from your own (eg I interviewed two Practitioners who had helped others to heal from cancer; see Bolstad, 2001, A and B)
- Explore an issue that is raised by some current news event, and that's on peoples' minds (eg after the Columbine school shootings I co-wrote an article on reducing violence in schools; see Bolstad and Hamblett, 2000)
- Juxtapose two areas no-one has brought together before (like NLP did with linguistics and psychotherapy in the 1970s. eg I co-wrote an article on Psychodrama and NLP; see Bolstad and Currie, 2002 A)
- Explore the implications of a research study you've come across (eg I wrote an article about the implications of research on near death experiences; see Bolstad, 2001, C)
- Explore an idea that has been fascinating you, so much that you talk to your friends about it often (eg I wrote an article on how unreliable memory is; see Bolstad, 2001 D)
Behind this list is the assumption that you as a writer are soaking up information, ideas and experiences from life. Most people who love writing seem to love reading too. They read outside their own field. They read magazines, newspapers and internet articles as well as books. Another assumption I'm making is that there will be one core idea behind each article. For me, an article is a call to action, even if that action is to change the way readers frame their experience, so that they will behave differently in response to it.
In choosing a topic for an article, I'm in what Robert Dilts calls the Dreamer stage of creativity. Dilts suggested that Walt Disney used three discrete steps in creating a new cartoon (Dilts, Epstein and Dilts, 1991, p 61).
- Generating and selecting new ideas -Dreamer
- Implementation of selected ideas - Realist
- Feedback - Incorporation/Rejection of other peoples' ideas and reactions - Critic
I may spend several days just daydreaming about the article before I start doing any serious preparation. New approaches and new evidence for my proposition will come into my mind over that time. One of the main reasons for "writer's block" (the inability of the writer to get started writing) is, I believe, that writers sometimes rush to the Realist stage of Dilt's model and try to start "doing" before they have envisioned their result. As a Dreamer, I imagine who will read my article, and what they will get out of it. I am checking out the ecology of my outcome at this time. What will make this really work for the purpose that I want to write it? What needs to be added to make it work for the people I am writing to? What would it take to convince them of the value and truth of what I am saying?
A second reason for "writers block" is the belief that what the writer writes should emerge perfect from their first typing. In Dilts model, this means trying to run the Critic stage of creativity while doing the Realist stage of writing. Instead of coming out perfect in one go, an article usually goes through at least five steps of increasing approximation, when I write.
- a hand written plan
- a series of unconnected quotes and research findings and core ideas
- a rough draft
- an edited copy
- a final draft.
It is rare for me to start writing an article without making notes, and the easiest way for me to make planning notes is to use a mind-map format (Buzan, 1993). On one or two pages, I note all the main ideas, points, examples and evidence I want to include. In most cases, I am making a point that would be more convincing if I was able to show that someone else has noticed it, or even provided research evidence for it. I collect all the background research I can before I begin typing. At times, my article is based on an interview with someone else; that takes more preparation time, because I need to record the interview and then get a transcript typed out ready to use.
Often I have heard of some research study which I think may be relevant, and I can't quite remember the source. I look through books and videos I have here at home and in the library, and then do a general search on the internet until I find someone mentioning the research I want to quote. Then I put all the details I have about the research study (eg the name of the person who did the study) into my next internet search, and track down the original article. I'm willing to buy a book or two if that's the only way to get access to the original evidence I need.
There are two sources of "writer's block" which relate to research and evidence collation. They are having too much information, and being overwhelmed, and having too little information and not knowing what to say. The answer to both, in some ways, is to learn how to read reference works. I thoroughly recommend studying the PhotoReading system (Scheele, 1993), a method for rapidly scanning reference works and taking out the key elements you need, rather than getting bogged down in page by page, word by word searching. Photoreading makes it possible to cover the kind of background information I need to produce a dozen articles a year. I read about four "heavy" textbooks a week. The reading style they taught you at school is simply inadequate for that. PhotoReading teaches you to scan a book getting an overview before committing it to your unconscious mind and only then diving into it for details.
I actually often spend even more time looking for good real life stories to demonstrate my point than I do looking for research evidence. I may have spent four hours finding a story which ends up being only a few sentences in an article. It's worth it because of the incredible power of specific examples to convey what I mean. Articles that do not have specific examples are harder to read, for reasons I discuss more fully below (See "Writing So People Can Understand").
Getting Into State For Writing A Draft
Quite rightly, much of the material in NLP based books on writing focuses on getting the writer into the state of mind where writing is easy (eg see Hickman and Jacobson, 1997; Hall, 2002). Here I don't want to go into depth about how to create a powerful writing state. There is no doubt that this is important, and that the same NLP processes that enable you to create other resourceful states can be used here too.
I would just add a couple of simple comments specific to the writing task. Firstly, to write prolifically you need to set aside time. This article took me twelve hours of solid work. I treat that a little like a job. I put aside other tasks for a set amount of time. I give myself breaks to have a stretch and a cup of tea (the problem for me is making sure I take the breaks so that I do not get physically exhausted in the excitement of getting the article written). I accept that I will not get other tasks done when I am in "writing mode". I am working in a room that I only use for writing and planning. In NLP terms, I keep my writing anchors fairly clean. If you have trouble starting writing each time, then I recommend you finish each day at a place where you know what you are going to write next. Getting started is frequently the most challenging piece, even for me. Once the ideas are flowing, I find myself in a mind-storm, rushing to put down on the page what is pouring through my brain. If you don't ever get that yet, I recommend going back three steps to aligning the writing process with your mission.
Sequencing The Main Piece
If you are in a good state for writing, then you can begin to write your first draft. I said that when I plan an article, what I have is a network like "mind-map" of ideas. Unfortunately, the reader of an article wants to read in a linear sequence, with a beginning, a series of logical steps in the middle, and an end. Once I have my points grouped into categories mind-map style, I need to consider how to sequence them in a line. Sometimes there is a time related chronology (for example, in my interview with Pauline Senior about her work with cancer (Bolstad and Senior, 2000A) we followed a time sequenced story. Sometimes the simplest sequencing is to present the problem or dilemma that the article deals with, and then the solution. In Margot Hamblett and my article about work with anxiety, we described anxiety in detail, and then the flip side of that description - the "treatment" (Bolstad and Hamblett, 1999 B).
Much of the time, though, sequencing involves placing a series of compartments of the article in an almost random sequence. The transitions between these compartments become important. Consider this very section that you are reading now, which is about sequencing. We are not covering this entirely chronologically, because I'm about to go on to discuss "beginnings of articles" next, after discussing the middles. The reason is explained in the next paragraph. But at the start of this section, I had to link this piece on "sequencing" into the main flow of the article. I do that by referring back to the mind-map plan which I mentioned in the previous section. And now, in this next paragraph, I want to link in the section on beginnings to this section on general sequencing.
Starting and Ending
I mentioned before that an article has a beginning, a middle and an end. You'd think that, when writing a draft of an article, I would write the beginning, then the middle, and then the end, in that (logical) order. Actually, I write the middle first, and then the beginning and end. Writing the middle always brings some developments of my original plan, and I want to allow for those at the start (when I introduce what I will be saying), as well as at the end (when I summarise or conclude what I've said).
The beginning of an article can be:
- An anecdote which illustrates the reason for your article. I could have begun this article with a story about a friend of mine who has developed a brilliant NLP process and has wanted to write an article about it for seven years, but hasn't. This initial anecdote could also be a surprising research result related to the main theme of the article. This is an "inductive" beginning (meaning that you start with an example and expand out to describe the whole situation).
- A formal statement saying what you plan to cover in the article, even listing the subheadings. This is a "deductive" beginning (meaning that you start with the overview and then expose the details implied by it).
- A quote. In the case of this article, I could have begun with Michael Hall's quote "I have to write; I cannot not write.", for example. This could be inductive or deductive in effect.
Basically, the aim of the first paragraph is to get people to read the rest of the article, so it better be interesting. Think of how you read a newspaper. Imagine you turn to your favourite news page. You don't read through every article there though. You scan the headings first, so you read most of the titles. If one interests you, you read the first paragraph; the bit they put in larger type. After reading a few of those, you may go back and read an article or two in full.
The readers of magazines are doing something similar. They scan titles, and then read the first bit of a few articles. Only the most dedicated readers read all the articles right through. So the title is most effective if it gets the reader curious, or if it tells the reader clearly what is in the article (assuming in that case that the subject is one that some readers are interested in already). And the first paragraph needs to draw the reader on to the second paragraph and on into the main story. If you find yourself writing a long "pre-amble" with background information, consider deleting it or else putting a catchy beginning in front of it.
Just as there are several ways to begin, there are also several ways to end the article. In some way I need to let the person know we're done. I can:
- Conclude the anecdote I began at the start of the article.
- Summarise the points made in the article. There is good evidence that this chance to review the material helps improve readers' understanding of the article (Buzan, 1991, p 82-84).
- Tell a new anecdote as an example of the key points made in the story.
- Add a surprise twist which creates humour or even leads into a later article.
About half the articles I have written were co-written with another author. Co-writing is fun and it often models the sort of co-operative activity that the article is talking about. For example, recently I co-wrote an article on NLP and pain relief with physiotherapist and NLP Practitioner Libuska Prochazka (Prochazka and Bolstad, 2003). We had been discussing our use of NLP in pain control and Libuska mentioned that she was writing an article about one recent case she had worked with. We discussed the possibility of co-writing, including another example case in the article, and presenting the cases with a research background about the use of NLP and hypnosis in pain control. Libuska emailed me her article. I then did the background research and assembled a rough draft of the article with Libuska's case and my case included. Libuska finally did all the editing of the article, and ensured the end result made sense from a physiotherapy perspective. We were planning to offer the article to both an NLP magazine and a Physiotherapy magazine, so we needed to read it through bearing in mind the two different audiences.
What this example demonstrates is that co-writing doesn't usually mean sitting down together and thinking up each sentence jointly. It more often means each person doing some research or practical work, each person writing a draft of sections of the article, and each person reviewing the article and editing it to check that their views about content and presentation are fully represented.
Writing So People Can Understand
Now, let's think a little about the details of writing each piece. The aim of writing is to have the reader understand and respond to what I wrote. If I write, "Imagine a picture of a tree", you probably could oblige me, because you have an internal representation of what a tree is and what a picture is. If I say to you, "Imagine a schematic illustration of an electron multiplier", you may not be able to comply. NLP Trainer Don Blackerby (1996, p 30-32) emphasises that the teacher's (or writer's) aim is for every word they say to elicit a visual image in their students (readers). When a word does not, he says it's as if the writer has written "zit" at that point. So my previous sentence, about the electron multiplier, could be experienced by the reader as "Imagine a zit zit of a zit zit."
As a writer, you have yourself created internal representations (internal pictures, sounds and sensations) giving examples of and explanations of a large amount of vocabulary which you may want to use in your writing. Put simply, you know what you mean. Remember that your readers often do not. I have one (perfectly useful) videotape where an NLP teacher is explaining something to a school child, aged about 12 years old. The child asks her why, in a demonstration they have just done, the teacher pressed on the child's knee. The teacher explains, "That is what we call in NLP an anchor." Now, the word anchor sounds like something this child will have an internal representation for. Unfortunately, the internal representation generated by this word is so different to the intended meaning that the child looks very puzzled. The teacher quickly explains "Do you know what that is? It's stimulus-response. Another example would be... " As far as I could tell, from the child's perspective, the teacher just said "That is what we call in NLP a zit. Do you know what that is? It's zit-zit. Here's another example of a zit..." On the video, at this point, the child nods politely.
A fundamental difference between writers who are described as "clear" and writers who are described as "confusing" is that clear writers are able to detect most concepts that their listeners register as a zit. As soon as they want to introduce that new word or phrase, the clear writers create for their readers a definition of it, and announce that they are doing so. The teacher on the videotape could have said "I pressed on your knee to connect that touch with the good feeling you had as you thought about that exciting event you were describing. Later, I could press on that knee again, and it would pull you back to that good feeling, just as an anchor pulls a boat back to where it's connected. We call that kind of thing an Anchor in NLP. An anchor is where one thing, like that touch on your knee, brings back the whole feeling of an experience. Another example would be..." Clear writers identify all the new concepts they will use in an article, and plan short definitions and examples for each. They emphasise these before beginning to use the terms in their writing, because writing, is, in large part, the art of creating new internal representations in the minds of learners.
Another important part of writing so you can be understood is to avoid overlong sentences. If you type on a word processing program with a grammar checker, it will underline the sentence if it gets too long. Like the spelling checker, that's a very helpful feature! The grammar checker will also caution you against using passive phrasing rather than active phrasing. To explain these two terms ("active" and "passive"), let me give you an example. It's better to say "Anchors enable you to recreate powerful states." (which says that anchors actively do something) rather than "The recreation of powerful states is enabled by anchors." (which says that the recreation of powerful states has something passively done to it by anchors).
I want to make two comments about words themselves. Firstly, simpler words are better. Rather than say "You can structure a visual representation with linguistic cues.", for example, you might say "You can build a picture with words." Secondly, sometimes I find myself searching for just the right word, and I appreciate having a thesaurus (a book with lists of similar and opposite meaning words) on hand.
All in all, writing is just a way of talking to people, and it works best if I talk to you much the way I would in real life. If I read my writing out loud to myself (which I usually do in the reviewing process), I want it to sound like something I could actually say.
Reviewing What You Wrote
In Robert Dilts Creativity model, we are now up to the critic stage. I write my articles on the computer. It took me a few days to get used to that when I changed over a decade ago, and the transition was more than worth it. The computer gives me great flexibility. Once I have a first draft (usually without a clear beginning and ending yet) I print out the article and review it making notes with a pen. But the fact that the whole thing is on disk means that I can cut and paste, easily moving sections around to suit my re-evaluations. I can check what content is missing, and I can check what content that has been included is irrelevant to the actual article. I can check the larger scale sequencing, as well as the detailed grammar and word choice.
Like Walt Disney, I want to re-view my work from the perspective of the others who will read it. There are at least two categories of readers: the editor of the magazine I want to publish in, and the purchaser of the magazine. I imagine myself in one of those positions, and I read through the article, as if I was that person. I frequently read through the article from the perspective of several different people. I am asking myself whether there is anything in this article that would unnecessarily offend the reader, and also whether the reader would be interested and inspired by the article. I want to know that this will seem important to them, and also that they will understand my main point.
For example, I recently wrote an article on NLP and cultural difference (Bolstad, 2002 B). In that article I discussed Japanese, Indigenous New Zealand Maori, and English-speaking western cultures. I re-read the article attempting to imagine how I would respond if I was an NLP Practitioner from each of these cultures, and how I would respond if I knew nothing of NLP and was from each of these cultures. I also read as if I was an American living in Japan, and as if I was a Japanese person living in America. In each case, I had in mind a reference person (someone I know in real life) that I could step into the shoes of and read as. Some sentences in the final draft are there because they may be important to one of these people, whereas to one of the other people that same sentence may be irrelevant. For example, at one point I discussed the importance of genealogy in Maori culture. I included in brackets the translation "...genealogy (called whakapapa in Maori)...". This is of no relevance to westerners, but to a Maori person, to use the original Maori word brings with it important associations, elevating it to a spiritual rather than historical level of importance.
I also read through my article on culture as if I was the editor of Anchor Point magazine, because I knew that he has to take some of the feedback if readers are dissatisfied with what he publishes. After my own final editing, I then sent the article to Gen Rippingale, an NLP Trainer who edits my material for publication in the New Zealand journal Trancescript. She read it checking for spelling, grammar, logical structure and consistency. Finally, I checked that I had the typed file in the format that Anchor Point magazine uses, and emailed it as an attachment to them.
Once you've sent the article in to be published, one of the most exciting parts of the story is about to begin. Seeing your article in print lets you know that hundreds or even thousands of people are reading what you wrote. And if you include an email address at the end, you'll possibly find that some of them write back to let you know how much they appreciated your ideas. Read the article in its printed form, but not as a critic. Read it as a wide eyed, amazed and excited reader who is learning all this for the first time. You can well imagine how much this reading enhances the compulsion to go back to the paper or to the computer and begin the next article!
The first thing to sort out if you want to write articles is how writing fits in with your larger sense of purpose. Then, any idea that you'd like to share with people as part of that mission is an idea for an article. You can model yourself or others, apply or combine models, and explore ideas and research studies. Keep the dreaming up of articles separate from the process of writing them, and the process of writing them separate from the critiquing of them. Before actually writing, look for any research evidence, and any anecdotes that will support or illustrate your case. Create a mind-map or a set of rough notes with all the points you could make in the article.
Once you are ready to write, use clear anchoring and other NLP techniques to get yourself into an enthusiastic and inspired state to share ideas. You want to sequence your collection of ideas, perhaps chronologically, or by a problem to solution structure. Take care with connections between the sections. To start your article, you can use an anecdote, a quote or a formal statement describing what you will cover. The aim of the title and first paragraph is to get readers to read on. To finish, you can complete the anecdote, tell an anecdote that illustrates your main points, write a summary or add a surprise twist. When writing, take care to define new terms for readers. Use shorter sentences, simpler words and active verbs, much as you do when you are talking.
Having written your first draft, print it out and check over the sequencing, the readability and the "energy" of the article. Edit out or add in what seems needed. Step into the shoes of various readers, including the editor of the magazine you will send it to, and check that it works for each of them in turn. Lastly, enjoy your success!
Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz
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