Top-down and bottom-up approach in writing

Top-down and bottom-up approach in writing

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Thinking for Writers

How these two types of thinking affect your style

Christina M. Ward

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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Thoughts are grasshoppers, jobs are Legos; its all very confusing to me.

I figured out when I started college that my brain functions very differently from other people.

Day one of class wed get these outlines called a syllabus, which told us in great detail what the semester would cover. I loved these. Like a road map of the class. Excellent.

Then, on the first day of lectures came the details. Lots of them. Like a swarm of grasshoppers. Each thought would settle momentarily and leap away. I found it hard to remember anything.

I had to write it down. All of it. Snap up those details before they hopped away. Ever try to organize a bunch of grasshoppers? Pardon the silly metaphor, but that is what learning is like for me.

Every single grasshopper also sends me down grassy paths to things completely unrelated. My mind is a windstorm of curious grasshoppers.

Enough about the dang grasshoppers. I digress is a common theme in my life.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Thinking

I learned about halfway through a science degree that Im a Top-Down thinker. I need the large concepts of the course (or job or whatever) to be firmly in place before I can even think about collecting details. And I mean, the umbrellas of thought must be firmly in place, and familiar, or I get completely lost.

Think of a box of Legos. Dump them on the floor. Tell me to build a red house and the first thing I need to do is to sort them by color. Then the red ones possibly by size or shape. I know at that point what I have to work with and can begin building.

Others start grabbing pieces and get busy right away. Their little red houses are done and perfect long before me. Think of how difficult it is for me to work a new job with the way job training tends to go. Watch these videos and learn. Sit with this other coworker and watch him/her work until you get it. Yep Im lost and it shows.

Top-down processing refers to perception that is driven by cognition. Your brain applies what it knows and what it expects to perceive and fills in the blanks, so to speak. Open PYSC, Bottom-up vs. Top-down Processing

Benefits of Top-Down Processing to Writers

  • Youre a concept thinker and can write on many topics. Dont worry, after you have your idea and know what direction youre going in, youll do the research you need to formulate the details.
  • Youre great at outlining a topic and can easily recognize when to branch off material into new articles.
  • You see things in-depth, conceptually, and this can be of great service to readers.
  • Youre a generalized plotter. You start with a map but can redirect or readjust the goals of your writing without getting too offended at the detours.
  • Youre great at plot arcs and character development. Applying underlying meaning to your work is also a strength.

Lets Consider the Other Type of Processing Bottom-Up Thinking

Bottom-Up thinkers are collectors of information and revel in the details. They may not know exactly where theyre going with something, but they keep tools for whatever is coming at the ready. They may appear to be a bit less in the clouds as the Top-Down thinkers, and its been my experience that they appear upfront to be brighter and quicker.

I struggled with my Bottom-Up thinking co-students in college who I always felt made me look stupid. Turns out, I thought they thought I was stupid, but they actually (the ones that knew me anyway) thought I was wise. Go figure. (Again, here I am digressing, or reflecting or something.)

These Bottom-Up thinkers process and analyze information as it comes in, rather than having to organize it before analyzing the big picture. Theyre able to work with smaller parts and assemble them at the end to make sense.

This type of thing makes my head explode.

Benefits of Bottom-Up Processing to Writers

  • You can start and stop a writing project easier, analyzing components and perfecting sentences as you go.
  • Youre great at proofreading and editing.
  • You can have multiple projects going and switch between them. (This makes me utterly confused. Like my brain is on the wrong channel.)
  • You dont mind pantsing your way through things and may find it quite exciting.
  • You can allow a piece of writing to come together as you work on it. If its a mess for a bit, youre OK with that because it isnt finished.
  • Youre great at writing on narrow topics or specializing in what youre adept at writing. You rise to the level of expert in fields you particularly love.

Neither of the two processing methods is superior to the other. Nor are they fixed. I find, as a poet, that my Top-Down thinking locates and starts the poem. But then something magical happens in my mind, and the broad, emotional, conceptual wide-lens changes. The lens narrows.

Suddenly, I can see details in a fascinating way. I can bend them into fantastic scenes and images that lure my reader into another realm. (At least, it feels that way to me.) That tighter lens feels, to me, like being in this creative zone. I do my best work when I can hit this sweet spot.

You May Find That You Work Primarily in One of These Camps of Thinking, but I Encourage You, as a Writer, to Do Two Things

  • Focus on how your kind of thinking benefits you, rather than how it hurts you.
  • Experiment with the lens youre using when you write. Try to view your piece of writing through a wider or more narrow perspective and see how it may look different to you. Find this impossible? Find a writing partner who is the opposite and work together to help each other see new things.

In addition, consider these analyses

Example 1

Because of my Top-Down thinking, I tend to make errors in my work if I move too quickly. I have to make myself type out my ideas slowly, over-analyzing as I go because I know where the article is ending up. Mostly, because I truly suck at editing through and proofreading my own work.

Most of my work receives very little editing, other than removing a few extra parts to whittle it down. Knowing this its important for me to have someone proofread my work when Im finding it mentally impossible to see the small picture or my brain is feeling floaty or fuzzy in thinking. (This means Im trying to think in concept yet forcing details into my brain. I becomeoverwhelmed.)

Example 2

Because of my Top-Down thinking, I make a great poetry editor as weird as that sounds. Poets can get bogged down in the individual words and miss how the concepts work together, the sensory details, and the shifting moods or tenses that offend me at first glance. I can help them shape their beautiful words into a beautiful finished piece.

In the same sense, I can write poetry thats difficult to understand because my head is in the clouds on it and I forgot to keep my feet on the ground. Knowing this means that I need to look at my poetry from the readers perspective to make sure that its relatable. Simply put, knowing how my mind works and how that relates to my work as a writer makes it easier for me to pursue and complete projects.

In conclusion, if you take some time to analyze your thinking processes and learn about how you learn, you can apply a greater understanding to how it affects your writing. Maybe youll realize its not the actual writing that is the problem, but the approach needed for what youre trying to accomplish. Switching gears isnt impossible. You can do it; umbrellas, and Legos, and grasshoppers and all.

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