Essential writing skills: the importance of structure

The other day I sat down and wrote 5000 words to finish off a story due to the publisher.  I also deleted about 2000 – not the same words I’d written. I don’t call that editing. Author changes to their own work are an integral part of the writing process.

Wright_Typewriter2Net result was a gain of about 3000 words, but what counted wasn’t the word length, or even the words written. What counted was moulding the story into a shape I was happy with, which was approximately at the intended length – and which had the necessary structure, shape and character development.

To me that’s the essence of writing – all writing, fiction or non-fiction. Structure. Get that right, and everything else follows. In some ways it’s also not a mystery. Most forms of writing also come with an expected structure – one that works for them. An academic paper with its ‘I tell you three times’ structure – abstract, argument and conclusion – will be very different from a novel, which typically has a three-act form. Feature articles, built around the ‘inverted pyramid’, are different again.

It’s possible for a writer to break that structure and get away with it – but not often, and it demands an awful lot of experience and skill to get away with it. There are reasons why different forms of writing have specific structural shapes. More usually the skill is in honing the specifics of the structure to suit your particular purpose. For me the guidelines are straight-forward:

  1. Is the scale of component right? For instance, an introductory section shouldn’t be radically longer than an expository middle, a concluding section shouldn’t drag out. If it’s a novel, all elements have to be paced to hold reader interest. Has the scale got out of kilter during the writing process?
  2. Does each section achieve the intended purpose – introducing the topic or idea, exploring the variations on the idea or argument, and wrapping it up? If it’s a novel, each part of the structure has a specific purpose relative to character arc and plot. Does the plot fit that structure?
  3. When the piece is written, has the inevitable ‘good idea’ along the way derailed the structure? If so, some re-writing is in order.

You’ll gather from this that one of the pre-requisites to getting the structure right is to also have a plan. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015  


14 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: the importance of structure

  1. Hi there. This is a great article. Do you mind if I feature it on my blog, A Writer’s Path (with 6,100 followers)? I have on guest post-ers 1-2 times a week. I would, of course, give you credit by name and provide a link for my followers to check out your blog. Before even considering, I wanted to ask you first.

    -Ryan
    http://www.ryanlanz.com

  2. “What counted was moulding the story into a shape I was happy with, which was approximately at the intended length – and which had the necessary structure, shape and character development.”

    Agreed!!! As important as writing, “shaping” is vital. A writer must step back, much like a painter or a sculpter, and review his/her canvas or clay and ask, “Where am I going ith this?” Once an answer is found, revisions, subtractions, additions ensue.

    1. Shape is more fundamental to writing in many ways. Words can change, but get the base structure wrong and the whole.piece can go awry. Or become a different puece of writing.

  3. That’s some great information, and it gives me a lot to think about. How is that story of yours coming along then? Almost done?

  4. Matthew, I scheduled your guest post for this Monday. I’m looking forward to it. If I spot any other of your posts that might make for a good fit with my readership, is it alright if I feature you again?

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