How to Guide Your Train of Thought

How to Guide Your Train of ThoughtI’ve written about how to write a good ebook. I’ve discussed that a good ebook needs an outline and how to write one. Now it’s time to learn how to use that outline to make a complete document that’s easy to follow. It needs to have flow.

In general, I think of this as a train of thought, since the metaphor is so very apt.

WARNING: EXTREME METAPHOR USE AHEAD

Look at your outline. Think of each individual topic in your outline as a railway car. You need to figure out a way to link all your railway cars together so that it becomes one long, connected train of thought so you can walk from one end to the other.

If you have disconnects between your railway cars of thought, your reader falls off your train and that sucks for them. Once you’ve fallen off someone’s train because there was no railway car where you thought there was going to be one, you are not exactly inclined to hop back up on the train to see if you can follow the rest of the cars to their conclusion.

Unless you’re James Bond. But Bond is a very determined fellow and often does things beyond the ken of mortal men, like using bowler hats as viable weaponry. Do not assume your readers are James Bond. There is only one James Bond.

Or at least, there was only one. I think the current one is doing a wonderful job, though, don’t you?

Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, right, trains.

How Not to Derail Your Train of Thought

It’s easy to go off on tangents and deviate from your original outline. My outline for this particular blog post would look a little something like this:

Train of Thought
Why ‘Tis Important
Explain the Metaphor
Explain the Reader’s Reaction to a Bad ToT
How Not to Get Derailed
Explain Outline
Create Quantum Physics that Allows Outline to Refer to Itself

Now, obviously James Bond is not included in this outline. I threw James Bond in because he occurred to me while I was discussing what happens to a reader who is thrown off the train of thought.

If I had allowed Agent J. Bond to be a casual aside, then I could have hopped directly from that metaphor to the next topic. As it stands, I forced you to take some time and think about James Bond as an entity unto himself and not just a metaphor. That made all of you start thinking about James Bond instead of trains of thought.

Not that I’m sure you wouldn’t prefer thinking of James Bond. I know I would.

But when I take you off on a tangent, I have officially taken you off my train tracks and down another set that go somewhere else. You know how sometimes train cars get broken up by dynamite and the front car goes one way and the back car goes another and all your hero can do is watch hopelessly as the front part zooms away without him? I just did that to you.

And the challenge is that unless I as a writer can figure out some way of connecting your train of thought back together, you’ll never find out where that front train car went.

I’ll have lost my reader. And you won’t have followed my thought.

Losing Your Reader

I intentionally took you down a different track of thought with the James Bond metaphor to demonstrate a point about how easy it is to deviate from your original train tracks. Now, since I knew in advance I would do that, I was able to pull you back to the original train of thought with a segueway.

I had carefully planned this. I was like Q.

However, if you are not as brilliantly prepared as I was, you lose your reader and become unsure how to get them back on track. When this happens, the temptation is to attempt a similar heroic segueway to get your readers where you want them to be.

However, there is a problem with that strategy:

Once is heroic. Twice is annoying. Three times is not worth it.

When you pull off the segueway to get back on track, your readers think it’s charming that you’ve managed to save the day. If you do it twice in the space of fifteen minutes, they’re not going to think you saved the day anymore. They’re going to have a sneaking suspicion that you’re the reason the day needs saving.

And if you do it more than twice, they’re going to be certain you’re the reason, and they’re not going to want to get on any trains of thought with you ever again.

How to Create a Smooth Train Ride

Okay, so now we understand why a coherent train of thought is important and why your readers are extremely disinclined to follow one with disconnects. Now let’s talk about how to avoid that problem:

Use lead-ins

When you look at your outline, you have individual topics and sub-topics. When you move from one sub-topic to another, make a note that you’re doing so.

You can do this in one of two ways: The lead-in tells your reader you’re about to make a shift in topic just before you do so. So my lead-in sentence would be: If you think your reader can make the shift from one point to another more easily, a transition may work better.

Transitions

See what I just did up there? I discussed the lead-in’s limitations and introduced the idea of the transition. Then when I started this new paragraph about transitions, you were ready for it.

In fact, you were expecting it. If I hadn’t started to talk about transitions right here, you’d have been mad at me. I’d have told you we were stepping on to a new railway car about transitions but failed to deliver. Bad form, that.

The more common way of moving from one topic to another is using the transition. The previous sentence was a transition – I referred back to my original topic (creating a smooth train of thought) and then connected it to my current sub-topics (using transitions as a method of doing so).

Transitions generally come at the beginning of a paragraph, and it’s pretty easy to use them to get your train back on track if you’re not sure how to move from one car to the next.

For example, if my third sub-topic under “Creating a Smooth Train of Thought” was “monkeys”, I could actually make that transition, even though it makes no sense. Watch me:

A third and more unusual method of creating a smooth train of thought is employing monkeys to run the whole operation for you.

See how easy that was? Go try it yourself.

Incidentally, extended metaphors are not generally advisable when attempting to form a coherent train of thought. I am a professional and I would not want you to get hurt. Please exercise all caution and exit the train carefully.

Thank you and come ride with us again next week, when we cover something else of vast importance to the empire. Perhaps trains. Or monkeys. Or James Bond.

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Wonderful use of metaphors. Outlines do work well to keep your train of thought moving. Another good method is to think of your topic as a play. Break it down into scenes that tell the story you want. When you look back at the play, does it make sense? Have you given the reader the whole story?
    .-= Jarie Bolander´s last blog ..Mini-Challenge Yourself =-.

  2. This is great. It’s easy to get off track so to speak. This is a good way to keep things focused and well written. Thanks.
    .-= Chris Anderson´s last blog ..Listbuilding Programs Aren’t Just for Bringing in Traffic =-.

  3. I’m so confused…

  4. Kenji Crosland says:

    Taylor,

    I have to admit you had almost lost me by talking about James Bond, but since I’ve found that most the articles here at MWP avoid silly tangents like that I gave the article the benefit of a doubt. Your intentional tangent does a good job to impress upon a writer the importance of following a logical train of thought. Next time I write a blog entry, I’m going to make extra sure I don’t derail.
    .-= Kenji Crosland´s last blog ..Aug 22, Achieving the "Flow State" in Writing =-.

  5. Great post! I think this is why grammar and spelling errors annoy me so much — I jump off the intended train to think about that word that is not spelled the way the author thinks it is spelled, or the misplaced apostrophe. And sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth it to hop back on, knowing the odds of having another error go up with each one I spot. Typo, annoying, not worth it, a very good description of the steps!
    .-= Amy Crook´s last blog ..It’s Coming Right for Us! =-.

  6. Great way of using the James Bond as an example. Congratulations! I will also use your useful suggestions the next time I have to do a writing assignment.

  7. tangents aren’t always bad. Sometime the reading builds up a lot of tension. A monkey snorts. The reader is returned to the tension a little less rattled.
    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Why we take a peculiar pleasure in suffering and how to stop =-.

  8. The reason I keep coming back is because your writing is so damn refreshing I can’t resist!!

    Igor
    .-= Igor Kheifets´s last blog ..Tony Robbins Interviews Frank Kern and John Reese =-.

  9. Tremendously enjoyable blog! I must take exception, however, with the fact you did NOT mention MacGyver. Let’s be serious – James Bond is cool, okay, rather nifty in fact, but who would you rather have with you if you were faced with imminent nuclear destruction and were armed only with a paperclip and some duct tape?

    I rest my case.

    Okay, not totally. If you were like Q, you would have simply snapped your fingers to change the entire time-space continuum and compelled your readers to amass whatever message you wanted to send.

    Or do I have the wrong Q? That is the Question…..

    🙂
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..Give BACK to Your Affiliates – Covert Angel Time =-.

  10. I’d take Angus too Barbara. But for Tei to connect with more readers he had to use 007. He’s more popular. In case your wondering who Angus is, its MacGyver’s first name. See what I mean?

  11. I was coming here to speak my mind, but then I read the comments and decided that the level of brilliance and good comment copy was too high a bar to for my monkey to reach without exposing his unshaved armpits.

    What? Did I really just type that?

    …and that’s your ‘behind the scenes’ genius, getting us to brave silliness just for the fun of it, while making stunning points to keep us all ready to jump on the Men With Pens Express anytime it flies by.

  12. Thats a great way of simplifying the writing process. I think, writers can learn about it by going through such a journey once in a while. One of the mistakes that modern writers commit is to hasten things and derailing the thought process… meet this deadline to finish those two chapters.. finishing a work before meeting an agent etc. Things like that can kill any writing endeavor. Writing is still an art, everything else just helps.

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