Friday, September 26, 2008

Writing Well: Organization

With the book at the publisher and the bail-out in limbo, I can get back to my series on writing well. In my last post in this series, I addressed the importance of clear thinking to clear writing.

This post will cover organizational structure as it enhances clarity.

The most important factor in the successful organization of any piece of writing is knowing what you're trying to say. Before beginning any written work, you should be able to articulate your main point in a single thesis sentence. If you can't do this, you don't have a clear idea of what you're trying to say, and that will show in your writing. (When I was writing Slaying Leviathan, I had its main thesis statement printed at the top of my working outline and taped to the top of my monitor. I also included each chapter's thesis statement in the outline.)

Knowing your thesis statement helps you know how to structure your argument. Your main points are the information and analysis needed to support your main thesis; they contain your logic. As you are outlining your points, either formally or informally, keep asking yourself: What does the reader need or want to know next? Knowing what to write is not enough; you must know what to write in what order. And that means constantly asking yourself which piece of information or analysis is the next logical brick in the building of your argument. (I only work from a formal outline when I'm writing something longer than an op-ed, but for shorter pieces, I usually write down all my main points in a list to give me something to refer to while I'm writing.)

Your thesis and main points are the heart and skeleton of your writing. But your writing will be pretty spare if that's all it offers. There are a few more items to put into your work to engage and guide your readers.

The lead. The lead opens your work. It can be one sentence or several paragraphs, depending on the length of the overall piece. It should give the reader a reason to read your work. It can introduce your topic either explicitly or implicitly. You can use your thesis statement as your lead, especially for a short piece. You can also use an anecdote, an allusion, a historical reference, anything as long as it is engaging and clearly related to the subject of your writing.

The nutgraph. This is the paragraph that tells readers what this piece of writing is all about; it should appear in any work longer than a few hundred words, after the lead. It can contain a declarative statement or the central question that the work proposes to answer. It should tell the reader, explicitly or implicitly, what to look for in the piece.

Conclusion. Here is where you wrap everything up. For a longer piece, you should restate your main points briefly and then your thesis. For shorter pieces, you might end with a quote, a brief anecdote, or simply a statement that you want to stay with your readers when they leave you.

So, your writing should be structured like this:

Lead.
Nutgraph.
Points.
Conclusion.

Your logic should be what compels the reader. But your argument will be effective only if it's organized properly, so think through the structure of your written work carefully.

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