Structure is important at all levels of writing, from the order of words in sentences through to the order that you present information. This starts with the understanding that you need a beginning, a middle and an end in everything you write.
A standard sentence can begin with a subject, followed by a verb, ending with an object. A letter can begin with a salutation, followed by a message, ending with a valediction. An essay or report can begin with an introduction, followed by the body, then a conclusion. In a piece of creative writing, you may find an inciting incident, a journey and a finale.
Good structure is important for one main reason: it effectively engages the reader. The writing reads more fluently when it hits certain beats, like music. Information presented in an expected order (or an order that aids comprehension or the reading experience) better captures the reader’s attention. Incorrect word order or uneven paragraphing can break a reader’s attention and may lead to confusion.
This is not a simple subject. This article provides general principles that will help you to start thinking about structure more effectively, whatever your field or purpose. It gives an introduction to some more specific areas of writing, with further consideration of structure. However, the exact requirements of good structure depend on your subject matter, and whole books exist to help with structuring academic writing, business writing, and creative writing.
Studies have been done into what works in all these areas, not based on language rules but on reader-response and psychology.
For examples of how much detail you might need for writing in specific fields, consider books like Writing That Works (Roman & Raphaelson, 2000), covering business writing; the classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 2008), for the universal structures of myths; or Wired for Story (Cron, 2012), which discusses how specifically paced writing affects the brain.
Breaking Writing Down
It is useful to break down the structure of your writing, with different scales, to explore how it functions. For example, a piece of writing may have an introduction, discussion, and conclusion.
Each section can in turn be broken down into paragraphs. Your paragraphs can be broken down into sentences, and your sentences into component parts. At every level, each part of your writing has its own purpose.
When you map out your structures in this way, you can consider the best order before you begin writing, or when editing.
For example, when you write an essay or report with many points, by summarising each point (at least in your mind) you can see how they relate to each other, and can therefore plot a logical order for them. This is especially helpful when you want to write a book summary.
Also, consider writing a report on the effectiveness of a new product. You might come up with the following four points, to begin with:
- Affordable price
- Unappealing appearance
- Excellent functionality
- Existing customer base
These points currently follow no logical order. By considering this before writing, you can decide on a sensible narrative. You might ask the purpose of each point before connecting them. You could then, for example, start with the positives of the functionality to show the product works, followed by affordable price and existing customer base, for additional positives, before finishing with the one contrasting negative, its appearance.
On a finer level, your paragraphs may also be broken down and seen as component parts (such as positive and negative sentences within a point), and likewise, a sentence can be divided into sections with particular purposes.
For example, if you wished to emphasise the time in a sentence, you could divide the sentence into two parts and then reorder, moving the time phrase before the rest of the sentence:
- [We went to the church] [at night].
→ [At night,] [we went to the church.]
At this level of detail, sentences can be broken down in a variety of ways depending on your purpose. The functions of clauses and phrases, or specific words like nouns and verbs, may all be more or less important depending on what you want to do with your sentence.
The point, though, is that this analysis can help you look at your writing in a structural way, to better organise your message.
Presenting Information at the Right Time
As well as identifying a logical order for your writing, you must also consider when specific information will be most effective, or alternatively when it will be distracting and ineffective. Consider the different reading experiences for these two examples:
- He gave her his ex-wife’s ring.
- He gave her a ring. It had belonged to his ex-wife.
Neither of these sentences is necessarily correct or incorrect; the different structures suit different purposes. The first example is a fairly neutral statement, open to interpretation.
The second example is written for dramatic effect: by presenting the information about the ring as a statement on its own, it gives it particular significance.
Considering how and when you present specific information, you can prepare the reader and provide cues to help your writing flow. You may wish to define difficult terms or concepts before leading into a discussion of them, or you may need to put the key, framing information earlier than usual in a sentence.
You may, on the other hand, avoid presenting information too early, to avoid ruining a twist. Withholding information can also add suspense or surprises. Whatever the case, such structural deviations should always be intentional. The challenge is to present information in its most effective position.
For well-structured, and well-timed, writing, consider the reading experience. Reading is very different to writing, as the reader does not start with the same information as the writer, so a reader might not fully understand a point until a particular moment in your writing. Try to consider what it would be like to read your writing with no advanced knowledge.
Does it make sense if you don’t know what’s coming? The effect of this is not only limited to aiding the reader’s understanding: it can affect credibility or flow if unexpected information is revealed with no prior warning.
If you include surprises in your writing, such as a twist in a story, there should be certain signposts beforehand, to avoid breaking the flow.
Repetition can occur with words, phrases, or even whole ideas being repeated. A single principle can be applied to all repetition in writing: you need a particular reason to repeat information. Unnecessary repetition can dilute or muddle your writing, or create a bland reading experience.
If you need to repeat information in your writing, it is often because something is out of place. When you find you have included the same information more than once, consider both instances. Is each instance necessary? Can they be combined, or removed? Why is there repetition at that particular point?
There can, of course, be good reasons for repeated information. This is particularly true in longer writing projects, when used for emphasis, or for consolidating certain vocabulary. However, if you do use repetition, make sure you know the reasons, so it is done by conscious choice.