The Controlling Idea

It is a principle of the classical approach to the art of language that clear thinking produces clear writing. Not everyone believes that. Some maintain that one’s passion for a topic will more powerfully sweep across a reader’s attention to fix an idea, that writing approximately, getting down just the gist, is all that is really necessary, believing that the reader will contribute what specifics are necessary to bring the idea to life.

That, to the traditional understanding, is to take the long way home, and is a way that bears with it some risk, because what I might be passionate about, you might not. Now that might be true of ideas as well, of course, and so the truth of the matter is that good writers worry about both ideas and passion; either one without the other should not be the goal or even the predominance. But without first being clear in our own mind about what it is we want to discuss, we run the additional and unwarranted risk of believing we have nothing to say when the road gets muddy in our mind. What we need before we begin is a clear direction to a clear idea.

This clear direction and point are sometimes called the controlling idea of a document. As the wheel has a hub from which its spokes radiate, so a piece of writing, each paragraph in itself and the entire composition that comprises those paragraphs, is to be written around a central notion; from there we elaborate or ramify that central idea with spokes or branches of related thoughts and attendant emotions. This concept of the controlling idea is addressed in a straightforward way by the authors Mary Lynn Kelsch and Thomas Kelsch in their book Writing Effectively: A Practical Guide (Prentice-Hall, 1981), and in the opening pages of their discussion, they specifically address the additional risk of confounding difficulty with ability:

Writers who don’t know where they are going or what they are trying to say will naturally get lost and discouraged. They will wander aimlessly through the byways and thickets until sooner or later they will give up trying to write well. They quit because they do not understand the nature of the problem. Fortunately, this problem, which haunts so many people who would like to write but think they are not good at it, is a solvable one.

The authors define this essential controlling idea as “a brief statement of what the finished work will be and what it will try to accomplish.” And I would make the further point that we write this important statement of purpose and direction first for ourselves and second, if explicitly at all, for the reader. There will be times, of course, when the subject at hand is so involved that an overt statement of the plan of treatment will be necessary for the reader. But more often we want to remember that only the tailor turns the garment over to inspect the stitching; the rest of us, just like our readers, want to be shown something rightly made and finished, the better to consider it and be affected by it.

A controlling idea, then, may be (and probably should most often be) one brief sentence or phrase that tells you, the writer, what the point of the document is. That point will involve another important consideration, namely, the audience for whom you are writing, for this will help you decide on the diction, or word choice and sentence structure, of the piece as it unfolds. And very importantly as well, the controlling statement will keep your writing defined—focused to the task at hand for the specific audience intended.

The authors make one more point worth considering closely: “most people will begin writing prematurely.” We think we have nothing to say, get frustrated, and quit when the truth of the matter might be we are trying to say too much all at once. Or (a more bitter pill to swallow) in truth we don’t have yet anything to say—yet, in which case we step back from the writing to reflect more deeply on the what and why of the subject. And it is in that pausing to reflect that we bring ourselves back to the main road to what we really want to say.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion