Recently, I was on a conference call explaining to friends why I had suggested the changes I’d made to the article we were working on together, why I had moved some things around, re-written a few sections, and completely removed whole paragraphs.
I found myself talking about structure, about the overall structure of this article as if it were a building, using words like balance, flow, and parallel. And by the silence on the other end of the phone, I could tell my friends had no idea what I was talking about.
To be honest they are all pretty good writers; although, writing is just what they must do occasionally, not what they want to do or care much about. Sometimes they just have to communicate something in writing. So they attack it. They see a piece of writing as a container to be filled with many ideas—some coherent, some half thought through, and some still mostly jumbled.
They don’t approach it as a piece of writing having a visible and understandable form built on a set of rules and guiding principles aimed toward clarity and reader understanding. So my discussion of structure was rather useless. That’s why I seldom go there.
While it’s unusual for me to have a discussion about the structure of a piece of writing, it’s downright rare for the mainstream media to write about this subject. They may mention grammar or say a writer uses sentences that are too long (whatever that is) or too confusing. But they almost never mention the structure of a whole piece of writing.
I’ve recently come across a few articles that, at least briefly, mention structure. Most recently was a Fast Company article on Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at Wharton. Just before that was a New York Times piece on writer Kate Atkinson’s new novel. And before that was John McPhee’s long piece in The New Yorker about the structure of some of his many books and magazine pieces.
For two reasons, McPhee’s article stands out from the other two and from almost all others I’ve read: First, it is printed in The New Yorker, a magazine noted for its coverage of intellectual topics, not the tactics of writing. Second, the article doesn’t mention structure as an afterthought in a paragraph or two as the other articles do; instead the entire piece is about structure, so much so, in fact, that the word is used in the article’s title: “Structure: Beyond the Picnic-Table Crisis.”
McPhee’s article is about how he chose the structure for several pieces he has written over the years. Some structures were (strictly or variously) chronological, particularly for pieces like “Travels in Georgia.” Others, such as the one about his trip in an eighteen-wheeler from a truck stop in Georgia to Tacoma, Washington, worked better with thematic structures, structures that spiraled out from the center starting point. Whatever structure he chose, he did so after much thought and long preparation as he worked out the best way to tell his story so it would be clear to his reader.
McPhee says in the article that structure has preoccupied him in every project he has undertaken since his high school English teacher first taught him about structure in the late 1940s. And he has “hammered it at Princeton writing students across four decades of teaching.” Driving home the importance of structure, he tells his students, “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in a way that causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”
It seems clear that the friends I was talking to about structure on my recent conference call had not learned McPhee’s important message, nor have many other people who think of themselves as PR or business writers or who, as part of their jobs, must occasionally turn out an article or blog post.