Determining what to write or reviewing what’s been written: framework 2

Using systematic questioning to figure out what to say or whether there’s more to be said

Editors are typically well familiar with working with checklists. Writers perhaps less so.

In a corporate setting, editors use editorial checklists to stay consistent both with themselves and across the editing organization over various projects in a writing group. They use editorial checklists to explain to writers what they’ll be looking for and to clarify for managers the scope of their work. They use editorial checklists to train novice editors or to help onboard new editors to the group. They use editorial checklists to define the levels of edit in a given context.

In a publishing environment, editors use checklists in much the same way, though not with one writing group, but rather individual authors. In this setting, any checklists used follow the publication standards of the press and may also be tailored for a specific imprint or series. Managing editors share the appropriate checklists and standards with freelance editors.

The checklist that follows can also be thought of a framework, an investigative framework. Developmental editors can use it as a high-level prompt when reviewing a complex, perhaps lengthy text to help ensure even coverage. Writers can use it as a heuristic for exploring a subject, any subject, which they’ll be researching and writing about.

The set of questions is general and high level. These are questions that can be applied to a broad range of subjects and a variety of approaches. The list is not exhaustive, but rather suggestive, and it has not been fine-tuned to any particular writing situation. Another potential application for this list would be to use it as the basis for a more detailed set of questions, tailored to a particular context.

This is one of two frameworks. The other develops a different line of questioning.


Part 1:
Generating ideas for exposition (writing to explain or instruct)

Typically involves description, narration, extended definition, and/or process analysis.

Writing about items

Single items

  • What are its precise physical characteristics (shape, dimensions, composition, etc)?

  • How does it differ from things that resemble it?

  • What is its "range of variation (how much can we change it and still identify it as the thing we started with)?

  • Does it call to mind other objects we have observed? Why? In what respects?

  • From what points of view can it be examined?

  • What sort of structure does it have?

  • How do the parts of it work together?

  • How are the parts put together?

  • How are the parts proportioned in relation to each other?

  • To what structure (class or sequence of items) does it belong?

  • Who or what produced it in this form? Why?

  • Who needs it?

  • Who uses it? For what?

  • What purposes might it serve? How can it be evaluated, for these purposes?

Collections of items

Used in addition to the questions about single items, questions which are applicable as well to each item in the group.

  • What, exactly, do the items have in common?

  • If they have features in common, how do they differ?

  • How are the items related to each other, if not by common characteristics? What is revealed about them by the possibility of grouping them in this way?

  • How may the group be divided? What bases for division can be found?

  • What correlations, if any, may be found among the various possible subgroups? Is anything disclosed by the study of these correlations?

  • Into what class, if any, can the group as a whole be put?

Writing about events or processes

Single completed events, or parts of an ongoing process

  • Exactly what happened? (Tell the exact sequence: who, what, when, how, why? Who did what to whom? Why? What did what to what? How?)

  • What were the circumstances in which the event occurred? What did they contribute to its happening?

  • How was the event like or unlike similar events?

  • What were its causes?

  • What were its consequences?

  • What does is occurrence imply? What action (if any) is called for?

  • What was affected (indirectly) by it?

  • What, if anything, does it reveal or emphasize about some general condition?

  • To what group or class might it be assigned?

  • Is it (in general) good or bad? By what standard? How do we arrive at the standard?

  • How do we know about it? What is the authority for our information? How reliable is that authority? How do we know it to be reliable (or unreliable)?

  • How might the event have been changed or avoided?

  • To what other events was it connected? How?

  • To what kinds of structure (if any) can it be assigned? On what basis?

Groups of completed events, including processes

Used in addition to the questions about single completed events, questions which are applicable as well to each event in the group.

  • What have the events in common?

  • If they have features in common, how do they differ?

  • How are the events related to each other (if they are not part of a chronological sequence)? What is revealed by the possibility of grouping them in this way or these ways?

  • What is revealed by the events when taken as a group?

  • How can the group be divided? On what bases?

  • What possible correlations can be found among the several subgroups?

  • Into what class, if any, can the events taken as a group fit?

  • Does the group belong to any other structures than simply a larger group of similar events? (Is it part of a more inclusive chronological sequence? Is it one more piece of evidence that may point toward a conclusion of some sort? And so on.)

  • To what antecedents does the group of events look back? Where can they be found?

  • What implications, if any, does the group of events have? Does the group point to a need for some sort of action?


Part 2:
Generating ideas for argumentation (writing speculatively or philosophically, writing to persuade)

Writing about abstract concepts

  • To what specific items, groups of items, events, or groups of events, does the word or words connect, in your experience or imagination?

  • What characteristics must an item or event have before the name of the concept can apply to it?

  • How do the referents of that concept differ from the things we name with similar concepts?

  • How has the term been used by writers whom you have read? How have they implicitly defined it?

  • Does the word have "persuasive" value? Does the use of it in connection with another concept seem to praise or condemn the other concept?

  • Are you favorably disposed to all things included in the concept? Why or why not?

Writing about propositions

  • What must be established for the reader before he will believe it?

  • Into what sub-propositions, if any, can it be broken down? (What smaller assertions does it contain?)

  • What are the meanings of key words in it?

  • To what line of reasoning is it apparently a conclusion?

  • How can we contrast it with other, similar, propositions? (How can we change it, if at all, and still have roughly the same proposition?)

  • To what class (or classes) of propositions does it belong?

  • How inclusive (or how limited) is it?

  • What is at issue, if one tries to prove the proposition?

  • How can it be illustrated?

  • How can it be proven (by what kinds of evidence)?

  • What will or can be said in opposition to it?

  • Is it true or false? How do we know? (direct observation, authority, deduction, statistics, other sources?)

  • Why might someone disbelieve it?

  • What does it assume? (What other propositions does it take for granted?)

  • What does it imply? (What follows from it?) Does it follow from the proposition that action of some sort must be taken?

  • What does it reveal (or if true, signify)?

  • If it is a prediction, how probable is it? On what observations of past experience is it based?

  • If it is a call to action, what are the possibilities that action can be taken? (Is what is called for feasible? ) What are the probabilities that the action, if taken, will do what it is supposed to do? (Will the action called for work? )

Adapted from "Discovery Through Questioning," Richard Larson