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Steal this quick tip on how to “keep the main thing” in your writing

The next time you write while to make a good point, use this trick:

  1. Open your document editor or notepad
  2. Write down the main point somewhere near the top. Like, “We should hire this candidate because she’s the most qualified applicant.”
  3. Make some space and a few lines down from that write the main point again. “We should hire this candidate because she’s the most qualified candidate.”
  4. Then fill in everything around it.

By writing the main thing twice and thinking about it first, you’re accomplishing three things:

  1. You define the main point in your head. You probably knew what your point was, but you probably didn’t know how to distill it to a single line. This forces you to put it into words.
  2. You easily give yourself something resembling a quick outline, even if it’s just for an email of a couple of a paragraphs.
  3. You also get to quickly visualize how you might fill in other details around it.

I don’t remember where I got this idea from. I want to say I picked it up from a book or two on General George C. Marshall. If that name sounds familiar, we can all thank Franklin D. Roosevelt for helping put Marshall in his “rightful place in history.” Due in part to the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after WWII and used his name so no one in Congress would question its intention.

Marshall was Army Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State and Defense during WWII and into the Truman Administration. Winston Churchill, who called him “the organizer of victory”, personally flew to the US to be on his death bed after the war.

There’s a lot to learn and like about Marshall.

  • He never stayed late in the office, always leaving by 5 nearly every day. His strategy was being focused on the primary tasks of the day.
  • At a boozy Christmas party, the recently widowed Marshall was encouraged to “Take any woman you like to a dance”. Loving to dance and without blinking he walked across the room, got down on one knee and asked a tender-age Shirley Temple if she’d like to join him.
  • He never let his own ego or ambition get in the way of what was best for the country. He routinely pushed and encouraged others to get ahead, including plucking a relatively obscure Dwight D. Eisenhower out from Texas after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Marshall, like Churchill, was not a fan of wordy memos and made a habit of forcing writers to keep it simple.

“Keep the main thing”

Marshall was also a proponent of what he called “keeping the main thing”.

In the build-up to D-Day and Operation Overlord, weather conditions were dismal. High winds had the waves up to eight feet or higher, far too strong for any kind of landing through the Channel.

Dwight D. Eisenhower sat in a library near Portsmouth, England. The D-Day attacks had already been postponed once because of weather. Because the tides, moon, weather, and cloud cover had to be just right, nerves were raw. Staring out a window as the rain poured in sheets, Eisenhower was assured the weather would clear by the time of the landing. “O.K. Let’s go,” he commanded.

After the successful landing at Normandy, Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Marshall confronted the task of how best to proceed. Should they thrust south into France, driving the Nazis back to Germany? Should they head west and strike for Berlin? Churchill was a proponent of Operation Anvil, a plan that would strike at Italy and secure Mediterranean ports, allowing for a thrust north to Germany later. Marshall thought southern France was key first since the Italians weren’t so formidable. Thus allowing the Allies to secure French ports again and French naval vessels and destroying the German army.

Churchill disagreed. He wanted to strike at Italy. FDR, too, thought it politically advantageous to secure Rome, the Pope, “and Christianity itself” from the Nazis.

In an interview in 1956, Marshall said of the proposed plan to attack Italy and invade the Balkans: “If we had accepted the Balkan thing, it would have scattered our shots. They (Churchill and British Cmdr. Clark) are letting political considerations after the fact dominate the whole concept. My idea was that we should defeat the German army…”Keep the main thing.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Marshall used that idea of “keeping the main thing”. A similar dictum arose after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and again many years later in a trade and diplomatic mission to China to help the Chinese in their civil war against communism.

The two-line outline rule helps you defend against missing the point

In every circumstance, Marshall was a defender of the republic and a defender of simple, straightforward language. He was also incredibly focused.

Probably more than half — maybe all — of your communication if you work through a computer is in writing.

You can improve it by figuring out what the point is first, writing it twice, then filling in some backstory around it.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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