Welcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers and students can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.
If your January is anything like mine, it’s all about getting organized (again). So today, we’re talking about organizational structures in writing. Figuring out the best structure for your material is one of the primary benefits of outlining. This column is for non-fiction writers, whether you’re working on an essay, a term paper, or a children’s book.*
But first things first. Why am I harping on organization? Because as I said last time: I’ve read hundreds of student papers over the years, not to mention the thousands and thousands of other things I’ve read, in pretty much every genre and format there is. Hands down, the biggest barrier to a reader’s comprehension is poor organization. That’s so important, I’m going to say it again:
The biggest barrier to comprehension is poor organization.
Writing isn’t just about figuring out what your reader needs to know. It’s about understanding when they need to know it: at what point during their reading experience is that idea, fact, or dramatic incident going to make the most sense or have the most impact? And, by extension, at what point in the reading experience is that idea, fact, or dramatic incident going to be so confusing the reader tosses your work down in disgust? You know it happens – you’ve probably done it yourself.
That’s all an outline is, really – a map for what you’re going to write and when.
So, what kinds of structures are available to us, and how do we choose?
We don’t. We let the material choose for us. Here’s how.
Sometimes, your goal is to give an overview of a topic or field. This is common in term papers or in traditional, survey-style children’s nonfiction, and organizing material by subtopic makes a lot of sense. For example, if you’re going to discuss human uses of honey, you might want a section on honey as food, honey as medicine, and domestic honey as an industry. It makes sense to finish talking about each subtopic before moving on to the next.
If you’re a visually-oriented kind of person, picture “honey” in the middle of a mind-map with spokes moving out to each subtopic. That’s the kind of structure we’re talking about here: a bunch of ideas surrounding a central theme.
Order of Importance
I consider this one a variation on the Subtopics structure, because all it’s really about is figuring out the order the subtopics should go in! There are two schools of thought on this. If you’re a journalist, you’re going to start with the most important and work your way down, on the assumption that newspaper readers want the good stuff first and might not make it all the way to the end of the article. On the other hand, if you’ve opened with a good hook, there’s something very satisfying about moving on with “less” interesting stuff and working your way up to the most compelling information or evidence you’ve got – the “end with a bang” approach to making an argument.
That being said, anything that’s genuinely not interesting probably shouldn’t go in your outline to begin with!
Sometimes, a linear structure makes a lot more sense. If you’re writing history, biography, or about the life cycle of a bee, things happen in order, and your writing will make the most sense if it reflects that order.
Humans are good at visualizing time as a straight line, so this structure tends to be easiest to master. Level up by arranging the clauses in each sentence in chronological order, too!
Cause and Effect
This is another linear structure, and in most cases, it’s chronological, placing causes before effects in an unbroken chain. Not always, though! Part of our goal as writers is to capture an hold our reader’s attention, which means that, in some cases, it’s more effective to present the effect (result), and then go back to trace the chain of events that led to that most interesting situation. History and biography writers use this trick a lot.
Problem and Solution
This structure is very similar to cause and effect, in the sense that a problem exists (cause) and we’re trying to solve it (effect). Pretty much every lab report or scientific paper ever written follows this structure, but it can also be used for research papers or books that deal with “issues” and the ways we might address them. In that case, a problem-solution might incorporate a compare and contrast structure, as you present alternatives and evaluate their relative strengths and weaknesses. Which leads me to…
Compare and Contrast
It’s usually pretty obvious when this structure should be invoked – if you’re a student, your teacher will tell you to use it! Unfortunately, it can be the trickiest to execute well. The easiest way to attack it is to present ALL the information for Option A, then go on to Option B… which runs the risk your reader will forget your arguments about Option A before you make a conclusion. Alternating between A and B in each paragraph is more sophisticated and can be really effective, but if you struggle with transitions, it’s going to feel choppy. Proceed with caution.
Are those your only options, you ask? Nope! I once wrote an article that was organized by size: from biggest to progressively smaller. The only rule here is that the structure makes sense for your material, so don’t be afraid to get creative.
And don’t be afraid to try more than one. Another advantage of outlining before you start to write is that you can experiment with multiple structures before you commit. That saves time, and here at Teach Write, we are all about efficiency.
Next time: methods of outlining that won’t make you want to murder someone!
Hey, did you know I teach writing workshops? It’s true – I work with adult writers, teachers, and students of all ages. Contact me to learn more.
*Structure is just as important in fiction, but the strategies are different. We may talk about those later. 🙂