If you doubt your skills for writing OR want more effective writing skills, these tips are essential.
For people who don’t want to write or don’t have time to write, that may be an easy solution. Yet, writing is an art, a craft, and a skill that exercises the brain. That’s why some people will always yearn to write themselves, no matter how advanced AI becomes. Others may not have that yearning, but they view AI writing assistance with suspicion, an “I’ll do it myself, thank you very much” mentality.
Do either of those resonate with you?
If so—you want to write, need to write, are going to write—but you need some tips to increase your confidence, let me help you out! This post starts a series that will cover several strategies on how to improve writing skills. Today, we’ll cover organization: the process and the structure.
As a ghostwriter, I offer other writing-related services, like content editing and writing coaching. Providing those services means that I evaluate what others write with the goal of making it more effective.
Now, there are many components to effective writing. Some are technical skills: sentence construction, spelling, grammar, and so on. No one is perfect, but if you don’t sustain a minimum level of competency in language mechanics, you lose your reader. (Don’t worry if you’re not good at it! That’s why copy editors exist.)
The writing skills I want to touch on today, however, are more at the level of the writing craft. In this series, I’ll cover:
- Connections and Transitions
- Passive versus active voice
- Adverbs: to avoid or not to avoid?
- How to vary your sentence by length, structure, and type
- The vital need for a fresh set of eyes (even if they’re your own!)
For now, let’s dig in to organization!
Organize, Organize, and Reorganize!
I’ll never forget a college professor who tried to insist that I had to have an outline before I started a draft of my term paper. This tends to freak me out; it just doesn’t work for me! I do organize, but I have a different process, which I’ll describe later.
Still, however your process works, in English writing you must come up with a structure: an introduction, a conclusion, and your main points in between.
For fiction writing, there are a myriad of resources on what those points look like in plot structure. Here’s one I like; also, try Googling “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.”
For non-fiction, here are the basics.
Introduction and Thesis Statement
My apologies if this takes you back to Mrs. Gunderson’s ninth-grade English class, but it’s true. Your readers need to know from the start what you’re writing about: why should they read this?
Make sure you clearly state your topic in the intro, but also use this section to give:
- an interesting—but relevant—story, and/or
- data points
All of these helps draw the reader in, arousing her interest and convincing her that your writing is worth reading.
Your Main Points
If you’re writing a blog post, an article, an email newsletter, or other short piece of writing, aim for 3-5 main points. The exception is a listicle; in that case, keep your supporting paragraphs brief for each numbered item—no more than 1-2paragraphs each with 1-3 sentences.
For longer works like a book, you may have 8-10 points, or even more. Usually each point has its own chapter. Still, grouping those points into 2-4 or 3-5 overarching parts (think “Part I”) can be highly effective. Not all parts, sections, or chapters have to be equal length, but it helps if most of them average a similar word count.
You remember in third grade when you learned to write a paragraph? All sentences between the topic sentence and the concluding sentence should support the main idea (a.k.a. thesis statement) in the topic sentence. The same is true for longer forms of writing.
As a former linguist, I learned that this concept does not hold true in all languages; in some languages, writers are allowed to go on tangents and down rabbit holes. In English writing, however, staying on topic is essential. Whether you’re presenting data, telling a story, or arguing a point, it should relate to the topic of the larger section of writing you’re in: paragraph, section, chapter, etc.
Every paragraph in a section should support that section’s topic; every section of a chapter should support the topic of the chapter; and so on.
If you MUST have an aside—a funny story or an interesting note about how your point relates to a different topic, for example, point out that you’re going down a side road.
If it’s short, like a few words or a short sentence or two, use parentheses. If it’s longer, use a sidebar, put it in a call out box, or use a subheading to create a separate subsection.
The conclusion doesn’t just end the piece of writing. It should at least restate your thesis, but it can also do several other things:
- Summarize the whole piece of writing. This is where you can wrap up your thoughts and remind the reader of all you’ve covered.
- Tell a final story, present conclusive data, and/or make your final argument. However, none of these should support a new point; they should support your main, overarching topic.
- Give the reader a quick win or two. If you’re writing to give the reader advice or to persuade her of something, use the conclusion to engage her. That will build her rapport with you, the writer.
For example, if you’re making a case for being more active throughout the day, end with something like, “So what are you waiting for? Take a break now to walk around the building.”
- Ask questions. This is another great way to engage the reader and build her trust in your expertise. You can conclude your writing with a single thought-provoking question (this works well to round out an entire composition such as an article or book) or make a short list of questions for discussion or journaling (a great way to end a chapter or other section of a larger composition).
The Organization Process
Remember how I said I freaked out when a college professor insisted on an outline before a draft? For me, organization does not always mean I start with an outline. Sometimes I do, but many times I start writing first, a “brain dump.” In fact, if I was required to turn in an outline for a paper in college, I’d often write at least a partial draft of the paper first and then use it to create an outline.
When I write for a client, I use a structured process: we first clarify their goals, pinpoint their audience, and discuss their topics. I help them come up with a thesis—one to three sentences to describe their topic, and then we figure out how to break it down into large sections, subsections, and so on. From there we develop an outline.
Sometimes when I write for myself, I use a similar process. I’ll think about my topic, do some research, maybe jot some notes. Then I create an outline, and finally, I start my first draft.
Other times, however, I do something in between.
Most often when I write for myself, the process is more fluid. For non-fiction, even when I start “writing from scratch,” I keep organization in the back of my mind. Once I’ve written for a while, I’ll stop and look for patterns, overarching themes. Then I create an outline or simply reorganize what I’ve written.
For fiction, once I’ve written, I’ll consider my overall plot structure. Then I integrate the fresh writing into it, revising as necessary.
Oh, BTW, I’m old school. A lot of times I start with a notebook and pen: it helps me think better. That quickly turns into a mess with scratch outs, circled words or sections, long winding lines with arrows here and there. (I always double space to make it easier to edit and make notes.) Other times, I start with a blank document on my computer. The process is the same, though.
Outlines Are Like Promises: Made to Be Broken
However you do it, an outline does not set your writing in stone. Writing is a process of evolution and adaptation. Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, for myself or for clients, a finished outline doesn’t lock me in to the structure.
For example, when I started brainstorming for this post, I did not know it would be part of a series; I intended to make all six points in a single post. However, I soon realized that I had so much to write for my first point that it deserved a whole post to itself! Once I had figured that out, I had to figure out how to reorganize what I’d written on to make it fit the overall topic of organization in writing.
Figuring out organization is one way you can write more effectively. In upcoming posts, I’ll cover five more.
You may wonder, With advances in AI, why bother?
Because writing is an art. As JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis would say, we humans are subcreators, designed like our Creator to create. And there’s no getting around it: writing is more than a skill or a craft; it’s an art.
While AI may be the wave of the future in writing, music composition and performance, visual art, recipes, and more, some of us will always want to express our creativity through our own efforts. For those of us who love to create the art of writing, we will always want to improve our writing skills.