Hi, there, your friendly neighborhood editor here. When you give your work to Eric to post, I’m the one who changes it or sends it back marked “not good enough.” I hope you see all this as helpful, but if you sometimes gnash your teeth a bit, know that I’ve been known to gnash mine when MY editor goes to work on my stuff!
Anyway, I like my work, and the reason I like my work is that I like your work. I like seeing its potential, and I like figuring out how to help you get it there. And there’s one particular issue that comes up so often and for so many writers, I thought you might like some tips on how to fix the problem yourself.
I’m talking about structure.
Structure means how the different pieces of your article fit together to make your point. Or, structure might be how the different parts don’t fit together and don’t make your point. Unfortunately, if your structure is bad you might not notice—you know what your article is supposed to say, so you might fix the problem in your mind without even noticing. Or you might know there’s a problem but not know what it is or what to do about it. Very few people start out just knowing how to pay attention to structure automatically. But the good news is you can learn!
It will take practice on your part. If you’re too busy doing something else (like running your business) then it’s perfectly fine to just put your thoughts on your screen, send the file to Eric, and if he can’t make sense of it he’ll send it to me and I’ll fix it. That’s fine, that’s what we’re here for. But if you want to learn to do it yourself, here’s how.
Structure Exercise One: Getting to the Point
Lots of people think they know exactly what they want to say, when what they’ve actually got is a vague and disorganized notion. That’s fine. In fact, one of the reasons a lot of people like to write is it helps them figure out what they’re thinking. But clarity doesn’t always come automatically. You’ve got to reach for it, work at it. This exercise might help.
- Write your article. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense or looks good. Just write.
- Take a break. If it’s a short piece, a page or two, a few minutes may be enough.
- Either look over your piece or mentally review it, whichever works for you, and then write IN ONE SENTENCE what your article is about.
If you can’t summarize your point in a single sentence, then you are either trying to say too much or too little. You need ONE point. No more, no less.
Once you have your sentence, expand it—write a paragraph. Make sure that each sentence in your paragraph supports your point.
Now that you know what your main point is and what your supporting points are, rewrite your article. Make sure that everything in it supports your main point, and that there is nothing in it that does not support your main point.
Structure Exercise Two: Getting Your Thoughts in Order
Imagine that you are building a wall out of rocks without mortar—that means you have to be very careful to choose the right rocks and place them in the right way so they don’t move. Once you’ve got a row of nice, stable rocks laid down, you need another row, only this time you are placing the rocks on top of the first row. The new rocks have to sit properly on the rocks beneath, just as they also have to provide a stable surface for the next row that will come after. In this way, you build a strong, stable wall. If one of your courses of rock wiggles or crumbles, then everything above it will fall off.
In a similar way, the points you make in your article have to follow each other—each point you make must be itself stable and must also support the points that follow. Skipping a point, repeating a point with different wording, or presenting your points out of order will leave your article unstable and hard to understand. But you might have trouble figuring out what the order should be because, again, you have the entire thing inside your head and know how it’s supposed to add up. The following exercise might help.
- Write your article, just to get your ideas out there.
- Take a break.
- Now, in a separate file or sheet of paper, write out the major points you want to make.
- Check to make sure that your points are in a sensible order, and change their order or add or subtract a few if necessary—each one needs to make sense based on the points before it, and it also must lead naturally into the point to follow.
Now, rewrite your article based on what you’ve learned, making sure that your points are in a cohesive, logical progression with nothing skipped or repeated.
Getting Back to Your Writing
You should only need to use the exercises a few times before you get the hang of it. You’ll start being more aware as you write of what your points are and what order they should be in. You’ll be able to run through the exercises in partial form in your head as you write, asking yourself “now, what’s my main point here?” or “wait, this idea I’ve put at the end really belongs near the beginning,” or even “wow, this whole paragraph I just wrote is really cool, but it has nothing to do with what I’m trying to say!”
If you need to get rid of something cool, you can copy and paste it into another document—keep a collection of cool stuff you wrote that didn’t fit, and maybe you can find a use for it later in something else. But never hesitate to get rid of a word or a phrase or a paragraph that doesn’t serve your purpose.
When you get stuck, when an article isn’t working and you’re not sure why, go back to one or the other of these exercises—or both. You will likely find that you have been unclear about your main point (maybe you don’t really have a main point, or maybe you’ve been trying to cram together two or three) or that you have either skipped a supporting point or gotten them out of logical order.
The more practice you get, the better you’ll be.
This article (Writing Tips on Structure) was written by our editor, Carolina Ailanthus.
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