The real secret to writing quickly – and to making sure that everything you write is relevant – is to understand and control the ‘organising principle’ behind what you’re doing.
This is something that is more fundamental even than structure to writing – because it tells you not only what the structure is going to be, but what’s going to be in it. Organising principle is one of the key fundamentals to writing a well-structured piece that’s going to grab your readers – anything from a letter to an essay to a novel.
Everything that’s ever written usually has an organising principle of some kind behind it, but often it’s unconscious. A chronology, for instance, is usually organised in date order from earliest to most recent. That’s often the basic structure behind any narrative history book – let’s take Winston Churchill’s immense History of the Second World War, which is a broad chronology. Superficially anyway.
Look further, though, and you’ll find the organising principle behind it. Churchill was giving reality to his oft-quoted quip about being remembered as a great man by history – because he was going to write that history. His selection of content, the way he presented it – everything about these books – was geared to that end. Often subtly, but sometimes not.
That’s true for fiction, too. One of the big issues writers often have is pruning out irrelevancies, those ‘good ideas’ for scenes that somehow gain a life of their own but which don’t specifically extend the characterisation. The writer gets stuck, backtracks, wrestles with the scene, can’t fit it in.
We have all, I think, faced that one.
But mix in a dose of organising principle – and suddenly the way becomes clear.
Imagine, for example, a play about a salesman – let’s say he’s not doing well and is wracked with guilt that he can’t provide for his family. So far so good, but a series of scenes showing his failures is going to be boring. Now stir in an organising principle – his descent to self-destruction.
Suddenly the play has a dynamic. What is the best way of showing the disintegration of character? Does the scene contribute to the exploration of that journey of self-destruction? If not, turf it or adjust so it does. Only then can we understand the final scene where the salesman leaves the stage to drive off – as we know, to his death.
I wouldn’t write a play like that myself, though, as I have a funny suspicion it’s been done already…
What the organising principle does, then, is act as a device to give everything place, and to dictate structure.
It’s the way to get ahead, and it works on any scale from vast epic down to blog posts.
Of course, the first thing you have to do is figure out what that principle will be for your particular writing. More on that next time.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up: more writing tips, science geekery, history and more.