Shelley Widhalm of Shell’s Ink Services imitates the pose of a Ben Franklin statue, ready with her notebook in case she’s inspired or motivated to write effectually.
By Shelley Widhalm
Writing has multiple levels of structure from freewriting, where anything goes and the focus is speed, to highly scientific documents or how-to manuals.
Another way to look at this is to see writing as causal or as effectual, either having a rigid structure or coming out of inspiration, motivation and the moment. In other words, is writing something that strictly follows a formula or format, or can it be freer than that? Can writing be in that gray area, neither black nor white?
To answer this, I’m adopting two concepts from the business world, where causal and effectual thinking are two different approaches to starting a business.
The uncertainty of starting a business doesn’t produce the best outcomes with a traditional approach of developing a business plan, according to Cindy Skalicky, owner of On Point Communications, LLC, who gave a presentation in July at the Loveland Business Development Center, “Mastering the Model: A Closer Look at Effectuation, Lean Startup & Business Model Canvas.”
Causal vs. Effectual Thinking
Causal thinking with a specific goal in mind works when the business model, customers and products already are a given. Alternatively, effectual thinking starts with the business owner taking inventory of the self and the skills, education, experiences, training and aspirations related to a general idea of what to bring to the market, whether a product, service or invention. Effectual thinking is having a basic idea or leaning and an idea of a plan, but not everything outlined and specified.
With causal thinking, there already is knowledge about what works and doesn’t work, while effectual thinking is more of an exploration and immersion into the process; it’s planning versus letting the ideas unfold and develop along the way. Effectual thinking is good for uncertainty and not knowing the final outcome; it’s you, as the business owner or writer, in relation to your idea.
Effectual thinking is, to use another business concept, taking assets to action, starting with your identity and passions, such as your favorite classes, hobbies, lifestyle and what you already enjoy doing. It’s starting with your inside, or the assets you have, coupled with your outside, which is your network. The upside is putting those ideas into action, resulting in taking what you have to offer to get out the idea or product.
As such, causal writing begins with that plan or outline, or a predetermined structure, while effectual writing starts with the writer.
Examples of causal, structured writing could include a press release, which must get the readers’ immediate attention while addressing the 5 W’s and H (who-what-where-when-why and how), or a classroom assignment of a five-paragraph essay that has to meet certain criteria to earn an A.
The journalist or student doesn’t ask, “Who am I? What do I know? What am I passionate about? Who do I know?” Instead, the editor or instructor hands over the assignment, and the staff or class has to turn in the assignment for a paycheck or grade.
At the same time, the journalist or student could find ways to personalize what they write, coming up with a creative lead or way of structuring the sentences to unfold the telling of story in a news or feature article and finding details they find interesting from their own backgrounds and perspectives when fleshing out an essay.
No two journalists or students will write the exact content, though there will be more similarities in the noticed details in hard news versus soft news and the more feature-like articles focused on storytelling and profiling individuals, places and events.
The assignment may begin as causal, but as writers find ways to personalize what they write, what they produce becomes a blend of causal and effectual writing.
A master’s thesis that follows a specific format also can be effectual, because graduate students choose their topics and approaches, while meeting the criteria for graduation. My thesis, interestingly enough, analyzed how literary theory can play out in the way journalists craft their stories based on their backgrounds, personalities and experiences, as well as their relationship with the editor, newspaper and other staff.
Writing may begin as causal—here’s your task or assignment—but, no matter what, ends up being effectual because of the revision process, requiring the writer to go through multiple iterations.
A lean startup business enables you to iterate and change the product for the better—you have your ideas from the effectual process and now you need to iterate them, building on feedback and measures of your success, while eliminating waste and mistakes through continuous small improvements. That’s what happens with revision—the elimination of error and continual improvement toward a better written piece that also makes you a better writer with that experience and effort.