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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How a Writer Weighs an Idea. Six Questions.

by Alton Ganksy @AltonGansky 

How a Writer Weighs an Idea
Benjamin Franklin used a simple technique to judge the value of an idea. When considering a decision, the founding father would draw a single line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side he’d mark a +; on the right side he put a - (minus sign). He would then make a list of the good points, and one for the negatives.

If the pluses outweighed the negatives, then he felt the idea was a good one. Too many negatives and he moved on to another idea.
I’ve always thought it was a great technique but it failed to weigh the pluses and minuses. For example a minus might be minor taking three or four to have more value than a single plus. Of course the same can be said in reverse. So my Ben Franklin lists included a value with each plus or minus. Maybe I really love the idea. I’m enthusiastic and have been for some time. That plus will out weigh several minuses.

Over the years I developed a different approach to evaluate an idea: a series of 6 questions. Not every idea that comes to mind is worthy of our time, efforts, and money. Some concepts arrive dressed in fancy clothes and blowing party whistles. We court them, chat them up, and then, over time, notice that the idea is hollow and only pretended to have value. I needed a way to apply a little logic to what is often an emotional process.

These six questions help me think about the concepts rolling around in my head and to gauge what I really think of it. This approach can be used in any form of decision making.

There are two steps.
First, I ask the following questions:

1. Is it satisfying?
Am I going to enjoy this? Staying focused and diligent requires either fear or enthusiasm.) 

2. Does it make a difference?
I’m one of those people things my work should leave a positive impact on my readers. If I didn’t believe that, I’d be churning out work that entertains for a few hours then evaporates.

3. Is it meaningful?
Related to #2 is meaningfulness. Meaningful means—wait for it—full of meaning. I don’t like to work on junk, fluff, or nonsense. My writing goal has always been to make the reader think. 

4. Is it profitable to others?
Am I chasing this idea because I think I might enjoy it? Nothing wrong with that but for me it needs a little more reason to exist. For many of us, writing is more than a hobby or art, it is a way to make a difference. A big difference? Sometimes. A small difference? Often. Still, making any kind of positive impact on the world is a good thing. The world needs it.

5. Is it doable?
Am I the one to do this job? I have many ideas that I have no training for. While I believe I can learn to do almost anything, I have to ask if the project is worth the time and effort.

6. Does it provide income?
We all have to eat and, as the Bible tells us, a workman is worthy of his hire (to be paid).

The next step is application.
So what does this look like in real life? On my desktop I have a series of digital sticky notes of things I want to do. The ones that I find myself looking at the most I run through the six questions. Here’s one I did for my Writer’s Talk podcast: 

    Is it satisfying? [3]
    Does it make a difference? [2]
    Is it meaningful? [2]
    Is it profitable? [3]
    Is it doable? [3]
    Provide income? [1]
Total = 14/18

As you can see, I applied a numerical value to each question rating my confidence in  its possibility of success. So a question gets a 3 for “yes, I believe that strongly,” a 2 for “yep, I feel pretty confident in this element working out,” or a 1 for “I have reservations.”

In this example, I gave the first question a 3 because I enjoy doing the program. I love to talk to writers and learn about how they work. The second questions I assigned a 2 because the program helps some writers but not everyone. Is Writer’s Talk meaningful? I think so and gave it a 2. (There are many days when I would give it a 3.)

Is it profitable. I believe it can be of great use to writers and others in the publishing universe as well has help writers promote their work. 

Is it doable? Turns out it is. I’ve done 70 programs and will be doing more this year.

Does it provide income? No, not yet, and it may never do so. But if the program get’s a foothold, I believe people will support it.

Decision making can be confusing. Too many thoughts, ideas, and concepts make feel like we’re riding a runaway train. The key is to get our thoughts in order, taking one idea at a time, evaluate it, then move on.

How do you weigh your decisions?

Alton Gansky writes novels and nonfiction. He is the host of Writer's Talk and the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. When not writing, editing, blogging, podcasting, and the such things he likes to eat and sleep. To get the real down-low on Al visit


  1. For me the jury is still out on the podcasts. It depends on how well they're done, how much the engage me. If they're slow to get to the meat of the subject, I'm gone. If they're fast paced, handing me info from the get-go, I'm sticking in to the end.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Gansky. I have a lot of creative decisions to make and I certainly appreciate your input. Thank you!

  3. I love your method, and how it improves upon the pros vs. the cons idea. Simple but brilliant! And my latest project scores a 15 (whew!). Thanks for sharing. :)

  4. Alton, for someone who has never learned a "system" for how to make a decision, I find I'm really attracted to this one. And I like that your weighting scale is not 1-10. 1-3 is manageable.

    This is a great idea for me. Will give it a try.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I'm glad you found the post useful. May your decision making be easy.


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