November 22, 2014

Think Structure BEFORE you write

Almost every writer, in one way or another, asks the question, What do I want to say? Unfortunately, too many nonfiction writers do so without giving a second thought to how they are going to say it.

Instead, when it comes time to create, they pound out what they think is a pithy beginning and follow with a few relevant examples. At that point, lacking a clear plan of attack, the structure-free writers tack on an ending that restates what they wanted to say and call it good.

Other writers, somewhat more aware that nonfiction writing has a structure, attempt to follow the logic of the news-based inverted pyramid: Put the most important point first and descend into the unimportant. Be advised! The inverted pyramid is dangerous territory for the non-journalist.

The average narrative writer will find it challenging if not impossible to decide what important means. And if the writer defines important as the order that seems to go best — as so many I have worked with have — that ambiguity combined with the inverted pyramid style can lead to a muddled mess.

But all is not lost. Writers can easily identify their failures of organization by being on the lookout for common symptoms:

1) Buried Beginnings — Is the focus or main idea of the piece lost somewhere beyond the second graf? Let me go on and on about my love of the topic without getting to the point: THE TOPIC.

2) Post-Example Disorder — After the introduction and a couple of examples, does the piece read like a high school speech stuck on replay? Here is what I am going to tell you. Here is what I am telling you. Here is what I told you?

3) March of Time — Does an event story progress in strict chronological order, reading like a first grader at the dinner table? And then … And then … And then … And then …

4) Block by Block — Does the story consist of blocks of related paragraphs that have no relation to the other blocks of paragraphs, reminiscent of taking a Labrador puppy for a walk? Look! What is that squirrel doing? Oh, Wait! Smell that bush! Wow! Here is something buried in the leaves!

Writers who detect these symptoms in their writing should consider a few questions that will reveal the source of the problem. Ask yourself, What did I do from the time I finished gathering information until I started writing? [Hint: Nothing is the wrong answer, but a clear indicator of the problem.] Experience tells me that if I was working with you on organizational problems and said, Tell me how you organize your sources and research, your answer would be some variation of Well, uhm … I have it all right here. And if you are one of the stubbornly disorganized whose work I have edited, chances are that if I asked you, How did you decide on how you were going to start? your answer would likely be, It seemed like the right place. Or you may be of those writers who when I ask, How you decided what your piece was about? insist that writing the beginning told you the rest of the story.

If you recognize yourself in these responses and want to move your writing from simply groups of words to tightly organized work that grabs the reader attention and holds on, you might want to reconsider your approach.

We call writing a craft for a reason. It is not a free fall, but a carefully considered journey to an end goal. Each step is necessary and precise: Think. Gather Information. Think. Organize. Think. Write. Think. Edit. Think. Proofread. Get the point? Before every step: THINK!

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