Do you want to know how to organise your writing?
If you do, planning and structure are your new best friends.
You will find a writing project easier to finish and readers will find it easier to consume your work if there’s an underlying structure.
This is why books have paragraphs, chapters and narrative arcs.
It’s why blog posts have sub-headings and why newspaper articles are broken up with pull-out quotes, panels and boxes. Even the directors and writers of most successful films break them into three acts.
Planning and Structure for Productive Writers
Several years ago, I had to write a 20,000 plus word thesis about the works of the Irish author Christy Brown.
For months, I struggled with this thesis. I just couldn’t get it to flow and I couldn’t organise my ideas. I told my tutor I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish my work. She said:
“Why don’t you approach your thesis from a different angle? Why don’t you outline it?”
I took my tutor’s advice and worked out an outline of each section and chapter using pen and paper. I wrote down the title of each chapter on one hundred plus 6×4 index cards.
Next, I wrote down points I wanted to cover within each chapter alongside various quotes, stories and other pieces of factual information. I laid my index cards out on large glass table, and I spent several hours reviewing them.
What happened next surprised me.
I was able to shift from one troublesome section or chapter to another easier one, without getting lost or stressed. I could see the overall structure of my thesis, even if it wasn’t finished.
In effect, I zoomed out from my thesis and moved the chapters and ideas around the pieces on a chessboard.
I considered where I was repeating myself, what I was missing and what I needed to cover. Then, I sorted the index cards into piles that I wanted to keep, remove or combine.
Next, I rewrote each of the index cards and I repeated this planning process.
I did this until I was left with a structure for my thesis that I could work with. Although the thesis changed during the course of writing and rewriting, this structure served as a light during the creative process that kept me from getting lost.
Reduce, Remove and Simplify
I hate shopping.
I never know what to buy and I always think there’s a better choice just around the corner.
One hot summer’s day, I had to buy a shirt and tie for a wedding.
I spent several hours walking from suit shop to suit shop in Dublin and trying on clothes I didn’t like. I was sweaty, tired and about to give up my search and go home. Then, I decided to try an airy and quiet shop near the bus stop.
When I walked inside, the owner took one look at me and pulled out a chair.
“You look like a man who needs a seat,” he said. “How can I help you?”
I explained my predicament.
“I just don’t know what I want,” I said. “There’s so much out there.”
The owner of the suit shop asked what I liked and what I was looking for. Then, he laid out three shirts and three ties on the table for me to try on.
“Why only three?” I asked pointing to all the other suits and ties behind us.
“I never give a customer too much choice,” he said. “It makes decisions harder.”
He was right.
I found it much easier to pick from his three choices than the hundreds of other choices in the shop.
When in doubt, simplify.
Why It Pays To Simplify Your Writing
The business writer and online entrepreneur, Chris Brogan best sums the benefits of simplification and focus. He told the writer and podcaster James Altucher in a 2014 interview, “The sun can warm an entire field of daisies, or you can focus it such that it can burn through an inch of steel.”
Focus on the heart of your writing and cut anything that doesn’t add value. If you’re struggling to simplify your writing, consider:
- What angles and points can you combine or remove?
- Are you being too technical?
- What should your writing focus on?
- What should it ignore?
- If an alien arrived from Mars and read your writing, could they understand it?
- Can you sum up your topic in one sentence?
- If not, what’s preventing you from doing so?
- How can you use fewer words?
How I Simplify My Writing
When I’m writing feature articles, I reduce the number of interviewees I quote because I know too many interviewees can become confusing for the reader.
This reduction also lends greater weight to the included interviewees, and it gives me room to analyse what they said.
While writing A Handbook for the Productive Writer, I simplified my work by reducing what I’ve discovered about productivity into 33 digestible strategies.
I did this because I felt that 33 strategies was the best way of reducing my idea to the essentials.
When I’m writing a blog post, I pick an idea and consider people who will want to read about it. I ask what new perspective or information I can add to this topic and how I can solve a problem for readers.
I make room for an introduction and conclusion and also for some factual information, personal anecdotes and stories from my commonplace book (a writing tip I learnt from Ryan Holiday).
Then, I write a rough first draft somewhere between 1000-1,500 words.
Later on, I re-read this first draft and consider what I should remove and rework.
I check if my sentences are too long and if I can break up paragraphs into a list. I do this because online readers spend more time scanning than reading articles, and it’s my job to make writing digestible for them.
Plan To Write, Plan To Finish
The next time you are faced with an intimidating writing project, break it into chunks that you can tackle one-by-one. On index cards, jot down words identifying these chunks, and then rearrange these in order of how your writing project unfolds.
This will give you an early overview of your writing project.
This planning will also help you zoom out and see all the pieces on your chess board. From there, you can create a structure that works for you.
Your writing will evolve during the creative process, but having a plan and using structure can help you get from the blank page to the last page.