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The Six Writing Hats

Jan 20, 2008
It's summertime in Australia and summertime in Australia means one thing - cricket! And if there ever was a "mental" sport, it's cricket. I was watching a test match last week and one of Australia's greatest ever players, and captains, passed the comment that once you get to state level cricket (the step beneath playing for the national team) the game is played almost entirely in the mind. That is, a player's success or failure depends less on his physical talent with the bat or ball, than on their mental strength, attitude and aptitude for the highest level of the game.

This is not the first time I have heard this. I have heard it said that all sport played at the highest level is more than 90% a mental game. This means that what goes on inside the competitor's head largely determines their success or failure.

Over the years I have studied the great storytellers, in an attempt to ascertain what sets them apart from others and sees their books sell in the millions, while tens of thousands of manuscripts never see the light of day. After hearing Ian Chappell's comments on the cricket, I asked myself the question: What if writing too is a mind game?

In an attempt to find an answer to this question I turned to one of the pioneers of thinking, Edward de Bono, and found that his seminal work on the Six Thinking HatsŪ applies perfectly to the art and craft of writing. So here is my version of the Six Writing Hats.

White Hat - Facts and Figures

This is particularly important if you are writing articles or non-fiction of any sort. You must first do your research, collect all your data and organise the facts. For the fiction writer this is where you do your research on anything from location to the ins and out of different professions, to the history or biography of a person, people or place. I read once that Robert Ludlum studiously researched all his locations, drew maps and noted landmarks and interesting features of all the settings for his novels. This leant a sense of authenticity to all his work, and makes reading his books similar to watching, say Sex and the City (where New York was dubbed "the fifth lady"), or Sound of Music, where the landmarks of Salzburg featured so prominently you can still go to Austria and take the Sound of Music Tour. If you have based your novel in Paris or New York, or your main character is a lawyer or a stockbroker, it is imperative you get these details correct. Otherwise you will lose your reader before they've even started reading your story.

Red Hat - Emotions and Feelings

The most critical factor in reaching your readers is the ability to engage their emotions. When writing fiction, I advocate feeling the feelings of your characters while you write, as this brings the feelings through in your images; images your readers will identify and resonate with. A similar approach applies to writing articles. Are you wanting to make your readers laugh or cry? Are you seeking to evoke empathy for a cause or a person, or are you trying to scare your readers into taking some action, or jolt them into awareness of a problem? Emotions are the universal language. We all feel the same emotions - whether your spoken language is English, Greek, German or Spanish is irrelevant. Smiles are smiles and tears are tears. A great example of this is one of the stories in the movie Love Actually where an English man goes to Portugal to write a novel and his maid does not speak a word of English. They end up falling in love, and the only language they use throughout their courtship is the language of emotion. So when you write, I encourage you to write with emotion, whether it's outrage or love, anger or joy, passion or resentment, it will come through to your readers. Emotional intelligence is something every writer must develop in themselves.

Black Hat - Cautious and Careful

The black hat is the tricky hat. It is absolutely essential, but it must be used very consciously and precisely and must be firmly tucked back into the cupboard once you've finished with it. I like to think of the black hat as the editor's hat, quality control or the "voice of reason". When you've brainstormed some great scenes, or come up with a fresh angle on your article, put on your black hat and ask: Does this really work? Better you ask yourself that before you go to all the trouble of creating, crafting and honing a piece of writing, submitting it and then being rejected. You can do that yourself. When you have your black hat on, step out of your creative self, and look at your work from the perspective of an editor or a publisher. Look for the holes in your work, look for the breaks in logic or flow. When writing a story you need to your black hat on after planning and before you start writing. Story has a logic to it. Don your black hat and you'll save yourself a stack of time. Just remember to tuck your black hat away again before you start writing. Otherwise your inner critic will destroy anything you try to do.

Yellow Hat - Speculative and Positive

This is the very best hat to have on in your planning stages. When writing fiction your yellow hat will create those larger than life characters that are the centre of all good novels, simply by pushing them beyond all accepted limits. Remember it's not what we would do when we are bound by the strictures of polite behaviour that creates great stories. It's what we would do in our wildest fantasies that creates dynamic fiction. This hat also helps with developing strong premises and major ordeals, massive story climaxes and earth-shattering revelations. Don't ever be afraid to push your story right out there. Always come up with three alternative scenarios for any given situation, pushing your character further and further every time. Then go for one more. The most outrageous, the furthest out option is usually the one you'll end up using. If not, you can always pull it back in the editing. For the non-fiction writer, this is where you go for your fresh angle, look for new outcomes, raise new opinions and get your readers really thinking about your writing. Why would they want to read an opinion or an article identical to someone else's? Really push your own opinions out onto a limb. That's where you'll get noticed.

Green Hat - Creativity

Ah! The mother ship of all creative writers. To let your creative imagination run free, you must write with your green hat on. The words and images come up for you in your own unique way and you owe it to yourself to write them down just as they are, completely uncensored. You can don your black hat when it's editing time. When you are writing, you are just writing, so allow all the research, the planning and ideas you've had to sink into your subconscious and just watch the magic emerge. If it happens to be a three headed pink monster with legs like a chicken, then so be it. Even if you've set out to write a serious crime/thriller. Your creative imagination knows best. Trust it.

Blue Hat - Control

I liken the blue hat to the planning process in writing. If the blue hat is the "ringmaster" in Edward de Bono's model, then it is the story or article structure in writing. All good stories have an outline, at the very least a beginning, middle and end, as do all articles. And it's well known that the best way to write a non-fiction book is to write out all your chapter headings, then your sub-headings and a short synopsis for each, then "fill in the blanks". So the function of the blue hat in writing is to plan your work before you begin, and keep your eye on your plan as you go. If you begin to deviate from the plan, that's fine, it's simply time for a new plan. But always have your blue hat nearby to plonk on your head to keep control of where you are and where you're going with your writing project.

It's important to remember that as a writer you are not just a creative artist. You are also a project manager, an editor, a researcher, an analyst, a cheerleader and a daredevil. Keep your Six Writing Hats by your side and switch effortlessly from one role to the next to guarantee the success of your next writing project.
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