From Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing: Chapter 7: Clustering Introduction. Read all excerpts from the book here
Chapter 7: Clustering Introduction
So now you know you might have to write 50 or more articles per year if you want to earn a decent living as a freelance writer. While editors might send you the occasional gig once they get to know you, if you want to make a living as a freelancer, it is up to you to develop article ideas and pitch them to editors.
To help you with that, I’d like to introduce you to a right-brain technique I use to help me develop ideas: Clustering. I first read about clustering in Writing the Natural Way, a book by Dr. Gabriele Rico (www.gabrielerico.com). Clustering is a word-association exercise that will be introduced here and that you will use later to help you develop article ideas. It is also an exercise you might use after you have conducted interviews and research, but before you start writing your article, as shall be explained.
Clustering involves jotting down notes on all you know about, and associate with, a topic before you write about it. It helps you get your knowledge down on paper and lets you focus on writing by reducing the time you have to spend pondering your subject, leafing through notes, or scratching your head.
You will find a picture of a cluster below, but allow me to describe the process here. To cluster, you do the following:
1. Write a keyword or phrase in the middle of a page
2. Draw a circle around and underline the keyword or phrase
3. Draw a dash from the circle
4. Write the first word or phrase you associate with the keyword
5. Circle the new word or phrase
6. Draw a dash from that new word or phrase
7. Write down the next word or phrase that comes to mind
8. Circle that new word or phrase
When you run out of word associations, return to the keyword, draw a line from it, write down the next word or phrase that comes to mind, and continue the process. When the next word-association string runs dry, go back to your keyword, draw another line from it and write down the next word or phrase that comes to mind. Continue with this process. Work quickly. Do not censor yourself. Put down everything and anything that comes up until you finally run completely dry.
Picture worth a thousand words
Here is a cluster using the keyword clustering. It helps me write down everything I might want to write about clustering, and then some. As you will see, it is not censored!
Why draw the lines and circles? They are meant to get your brain firing on all synapses and spark the creative side of your brain. As you continue your cluster, you will soon have on your page something that looks like a messy spider’s web. You may have three word-association strings; you may have a dozen or more strings. What is important is you work rapidly and do not censor yourself.
Before you cluster, read over the above instructions. Also, before you begin, loosen up on a scrap of paper by quickly drawing circles and dashes and circles and dashes. All you are doing here is loosening up! Once you are ready, cluster the keyword below.
If you are ready, write down the keyword and cluster. If you are not ready to cluster, take a break. Have a cup of tea, go for a stroll, go pet your dog or cat. Once you are ready…
Keyword to cluster:
(When you have completed your cluster, continue reading the chapter.)
Why cluster here?
Later, you will do more clustering and use the results to help focus your article idea creation efforts. At this point, I just want you to play with the technique and get a little practice.
Clustering can be fun, useful, and practical. Trust me. If you have not tried it, go back and cluster! If you have clustered, try another one. Are you writing about anything right now? Have you been researching a topic? Is there something you are particularly interested in or passionate about? Pick a keyword and cluster. See where it takes you.
Or, if you want additional words to cluster, try any of these keywords: hands, money, time, help, work, education, passion, hobbies/interests, weather, home, Christmas, politics, mother, father, health, spider, dinner, or favourite actor, music group, movie, or book.
Journal exercise: Writing
Turn that cluster into writing! That instruction might seem difficult to do, as all you have is a spider’s web of words and phrases on a blank sheet. But take a good look at your cluster and let it inspire you to write (without conducting any other research) a page or two on one of the topics you chose to cluster. Choose any slant or angle, any tone or style you want. You should find something buried in your cluster that will get you started. If not, try some other clustering exercises and see what they inspire.
Pick your own word to cluster and have some fun. Because, if this is not fun—you pick the topic, conduct internal research, and write freely—then you have to ask yourself if you really want to write. So, go ahead. Before you read on, take some time to cluster and write.
Practical clustering application
Clustering can be applied to any writing. If you conduct extensive research on a topic, you can cluster a key phrase associated with it before you write. Examine your cluster strings and you might find a natural outline for the topic or situation about which you are writing. All you have to do is organize the outline and fill in the blanks, so to speak, before you produce a first draft.
I once had to write a business proposal on the feasibility of establishing a continuing-education computer-training department for a community college. After a great deal of research and several intense meetings where many opinions were expressed, I sat down to write… and found myself blank. I was on information and opinion overload and could not think straight. So I clustered the following phrase:
Computer Education Centre
Out poured all aspects of my research. Clustering helped me put on paper all issues, costs, benefits, and challenges that had been discussed in various meetings and other reports. The cluster allowed me to create an outline with sub-points under each heading. Then, all I had to do was fill in the blanks.
Four hours later, the first draft of the report was complete. Yes, I had to go back to some of the research I had done to get prices, projections, and other details, but I knew where in the report this information was to go.
Whether your are writing articles for periodicals or documents for corporate clients, clustering can help you work faster, more efficiently and even more creatively. It’s what you are paid the big bucks to do.
Try it. You might be amazed at how well it works.