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Building with Words

Your Words and Ideas, All in a Jumble <br>(Courtesy <div xmlns:cc="" about=""><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=

My two-year-old daughter got a set of building blocks for Christmas, and that got me thinking about how to make you a better writer. No, really.

One of her favorite games for a long time now has been “stack and smash.” She started doing it with empty thread spools, putting two or three together in a tower, then knocking it over. She’d laugh and laugh. We watched her motor skills improve as she got better and better at stacking the blocks, sometimes making a broad base with two or three spools so the tower could climb higher.

She didn’t do any of that to improve hand-eye coordination or to master planning and structural design. Her only goal was to get a bigger smash. As she’s grown, we’ve bought her more and bigger and varied building blocks sets to get those side benefits — to get her thinking ahead, and planning, and recognizing the cause-effect of a poorly constructed tower toppling before she got to smash it — but her focus has only ever been on the payoff, and so this new set of blocks rather befuddled her.

It’s got arches and round pillars. It’s got smooth edges instead of interlocking bits. It’s designed to make beautiful buildings, not just a tall tower to be pushed over. She looked at the picture on the box, and she looked at me, and she asked, “How do I do that?”

Creating Deliberate Structure

Chances are good that’s where you are, with your writing. I’m not suggesting you’re producing two-year-old quality literature, but I suspect you’ve gone just far enough in your development as a writer to achieve what you had to everyday — whether that’s a shaky tower ten blocks high that’ll still make a satisfying crash, or a bare-bones email to your coworker that conveys the critical information “without any of that flowery stuff.” You’re getting by, but when you see a beautifully crafted document you just shake your head and wonder how you could possibly do something like that. In all likelihood, you wonder why you would even bother.

I’ve given some answers in earlier posts, and I’ll give more as we go along, but ultimately I assume if you’re reading this blog you’re at least interested in trying. And the first step in answering how you could do something like that is the same for your documents as it is for my daughter’s towers — creating deliberate structure.

Your building blocks aren’t red arches and blue columns and yellow cubes. Yours are words and sentences, facts and ideas, but if you just throw them together, pile them on top of each other in whatever order you happen to grasp at them, you’re going to end up with just as shoddy of a structure. I said before that writing is a mental game, and here’s another example. Before you start on any document, you should take a moment to consider the structure.

  • What’s your foundation?
  • What’s your purpose (the ultimate shape of your document)?
  • What are the main points or themes you’re going to use to convey that idea (your building blocks)?
  • Which of those points are most important?
  • Which of those points are most complicated or unclear?
  • How are you going to organize your points?
  • Which bits involve informing, and which bits involve persuading?
  • How can you arrange those bits to get the best effect?

Does that sound a little overwhelming? I understand if it does. That sort of deliberate planning is exactly what so befuddled my daughter. She’s an adventurer, though, and she’s competitive enough that when I built a little clocktower out of two rectangles, an arch, a pillar, and a triangle, she wanted to show me that she could do the same. You’ve got to have a little bit of that drive, to just get started, and then from there it’s just practice.

Following Good Blueprints

Of course, it helps to have some patterns to follow. I’ll get into that. This post is just the first in a three- or four-part series on the structure of your documents. To get you started, though, I wanted to briefly introduce the major elements of document structure, and some of the standard ways of resolving the issues I brought up earlier.

Every document should start with a strong introduction. This is the foundation of your structure, and if it’s weak or shaky or just thrown-together, your whole document will inherit that instability. If you skip it altogether, the first paragraphs of your body become the foundation, and that means they’re serving dual purpose and probably not doing very well at either of them. I know introductions can be daunting, and I hope to address that in my next post in this series, Negotiating a Connection. The most important thing to know, though, is that your reader starts into your document with little idea what to expect, whereas you start it off knowing exactly what information it will contain. That disconnect is what creates the need for an introduction, and that’s exactly what you’re trying to address. Focus on building introductions that will give your reader a basic understanding of the overall document — its purpose and its structure — and then smoothly transition into the actual body of your document.

The body of your document, of course, is the message itself. It’s the information you’re trying to convey. Here’s where most of your planning comes in, structurally, because the introduction and the conclusion are already pretty set in stone. When you get to the body, though, you have to decide how to organize this big pile of ideas and words that you’re trying to convert into information. The best method of organization varies from document to document, but here are some of the most common ones:

  • Chronological (or Reverse Chronological)
  • Thematic
  • Parallel
  • Least to Greatest (or Greatest to Least)
  • General to Specific (or Specific to General)

The second post in this series will focus on all of these organizational methods in more detail, with some discussion of when each one might be appropriate, and some of the pitfalls each one brings with it. In all likelihood you’re already using some combination of these methods without thinking about it, but taking a moment to understand what’s going on behind the scenes (and approaching the structure of your document with deliberate intent) will help you to make a clearer, stronger document out of the techniques you’re already using.

And last comes your conclusion, another troubling element that you know you need to have, but don’t really know how to build. How are you supposed to restate the point of your document without just repeating yourself? If you could sum up the document in one paragraph, why did you need to write the whole document in the first place? The answer to that, again, is in deliberate structure. When you know your document structure, when you understand the real purpose of the body element and of the conclusion, it becomes a lot easier to put the right words in the right places. I’ll devote a whole blog post to helping you out with that.

For now, think about the documents you’ve written before, whether they were essays for college classes, or an email you sent your boss yesterday. Think about what you’ve done right, without even thinking about it, and about what you’ve done wrong, leaving your words shaky and ready to fall. If you know what you need help with — any particular problems you keep running into — let me know in the comments. I’ll be glad to address them as soon as I get the chance.

Photo credit zscheyge.

3 Responses to “Building with Words”

  1. Trish Pogue says:

    This article made me see the way I structure my writing differently. I hate writing intros but they are are strong them the rest of that document will be strong too. It makes perfect sense.

    While reading this article I was reminded of an earlier article that you wrote, Filling in the Blanks. When you fill in the blanks you are setting up a structure and creating guidelines for where your writing is going.

    I can’t wait to read the next article in this series.

  2. Courtney says:

    I hate intros, and I hate opening lines. It has to do with the blank-page fear, the intimidation I feel when I see all of that white space. But still, even the white space isn’t as daunting to me as the first words of that very first line.

    What helps me is forgetting the intro and just jumping into the story at some later point. This enables me to reach my stride and get rid of the terrifying white space. And once that happens, the words I need for the first few sentences are far more likely to peek their heads around the corner and say, in their timid little voices, “Can we come out now?”

    And I’m then able to answer, “Bring it.” ;o)

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Honestly, I didn’t really learn to appreciate the importance of good introductions (and document structure in general) until well after I’d gotten out of school. And all of my schooling was focused on writing!

    I was always good about coming up with some sort of intro, some sort of overall structure, or I wouldn’t have passed my classes. It wasn’t until I got into the business world that I realized how important the document structure was, when it wasn’t just one professor reading my paper but dozens of engineers or thousands of customers reading my manuals.

    That’s when document structure really matters — when someone who barely cares how “good” your writing is has to find some crucial information in it. And, more often than not, the introduction decides whether or not they succeed at that.

    Y’know, I think I’m going to make a blog post out of the answer I just wrote to Trish’s comment. I KNOW I’m going to make a blog post out of my answer to yours. Or maybe you should.

    One of us needs to talk about out-of-sequence writing. There’s huge pros and cons, and it plays deeply into the conversation we’ve been having lately about drafts and edits and revisions. In the end, every document has to be viewed in little pieces, from several angles, so getting the perfect structure before you’ve taken a stab at the body or poked around in the conclusion is highly unlikely.

    Or, short answer, “good point!”