Structuring your writing – the back-to-basics masterclass

The three enemies of writing: headless horsemen, lost travellers, and fence-sitters.

The last article looked at your book’s organising principle - finding the overall shape that’ll make it easy to read, and easy to write. Shaping the actual writing is just as important. But if you know how to structure a great presentation, you know how to structure your writing, it’s just a question of applying the same principles. So here’s how to beat the three enemies: headless horsemen, lost travellers, and fence-sitters.

Headless horsemen
They’re freaky in stories and just as freaky in a piece of writing. When I read something, I want to know what it is. I give it a paragraph, maybe two – half a page at the utmost. If I still don’t know, it’s a headless horseman. This thing has no head.
Everything needs an introduction. This means every book, every chapter, and every section. Often new writers know they want to pique the reader’s interest. A reader who’s curious – good. A reader asking “What the hell is this?” – bad. A surprise destination makes a great anniversary present, but isn’t a great way to write. Even crime and mystery novels, which depend on hiding what it’s really about, give us something we think is the destination, before twisting the tale.
Not sure how? Top-trade secret: write it the primary-school way, then take out the boring bits. “This blog post will discuss the three enemies of writing: headless horsemen, lost travellers, and fence sitters.” à “The three enemies of writing are headless horsemen, lost travellers, and fence-sitters.” TA-DA! Simples.
Next trade secret: write, or rewrite, the introduction at the end.
Masterclass: Say something exciting or intriguing and then say what you’re talking about. TA-DA!
Lost travellers
If you’re lost in a city, you’re forced to wander in circles asking directions. If you’re lost in a piece of writing, you can just leave – and you probably will. Lost readers are unhappy readers. They need a map. We do this in presentations quite naturally – reminding people where they’ve been, telling them where they are now, telling them what’s coming next. In writing, it’s all about paragraphing.
one concept, one paragraph: think how you key-point a presentation speech. In writing, make each key point a paragraph. Try not to write one-sentence paragraphs – it might look easier to read, with such short paragraphs, but actually it’s harder, because the sentences aren’t being grouped for me so I can’t see the structure.
every paragraph has a topic sentence: in blogs, you might use a heading above each paragraph, or put the first sentence in bold. So look at your paragraph: which sentence would you put in bold? That’s your topic sentence.
connect paragraphs with link sentences: tell me how this flows on from the previous paragraph, or how it leads onto the next. Connect them for me. Why are we talking about this topic, next?
So your paragraphs will look like this:
Link sentence. Topic sentence. Blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah.
or maybe this:
Topic sentence. Blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah. Link sentence.
Masterclass: Exactly the same thing, but sometimes it’s not a totally separate sentence. Yup, that’s it. TA-DA!
Try doing this religiously in your blog posts – very quickly it becomes second nature.
Fence-sitters
I’ve got to the end and… yeah. Well. So…? What now? Presentations end with clear purpose. Books, chapters, and blog articles need to do the same. People often struggle with conclusions, and find it difficult to see the difference between the introduction and the conclusion. After all, the introduction summarises everything, and the conclusion – err – summarises everything…
This is how light dawned for me: draw a conclusion. Yes, do remind the reader where they’ve been – so you can draw a conclusion. Sometimes you’ve been drawing conclusions all the way through – so scoop them all up, remind us of all those, and draw a mega-conclusion.
Trade secret: Try answering the question, “So?”
Masterclass: This isn’t just for the end of the book. It’s also for each chapter and each section.
* * * * *
All sounding pretty basic? Brilliant. Between a sound organising principle and getting the structure right, you’re already ahead of the pack.

4 thoughts on “Structuring your writing – the back-to-basics masterclass

  1. Pingback: How to write something you can’t write | Thought Leader Books: The Blog

  2. Pingback: How to write… an introduction | Thought Leader Books: The Blog

  3. Pingback: Is your draft a mess? Step-by-step guide to fixing it. With Outfits. | Thought Leader Books: The Blog

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