Structuring a Piece of Writing

shutterstock_130726859Recently, 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.

Photo: Shutterstock/Foxtrot101

Unpacking a Statement to See What It Means

shutterstock_95551144I’ve always thought the word unpack was used only to mean “to remove something from a suitcase, a bag or a package, for instance.” But I’ve discovered that another meaning—until recently unfamiliar to me—is “to analyze something into its component elements.”

I started noticing this second meaning of unpack a few months ago while watching the TV talk show Tavis Smiley and hearing the host say over and over again—with what always seemed like the anticipation of discovery in his voice—that he wanted to unpack a statement just made by one of his guests.

Soon, I began listening for all the times Smiley would use this word on a given night or within a week. I didn’t really count the usages, but I became so aware of them that it seemed clear unpack had become his default word when he wanted a guest to explain in more detail what he/she really meant in answering his most recent question.

Once I became aware of Smiley’s repeated use of the word, I started looking for unpack in other places, noticing it in newspapers and magazines, and occasionally online.

Online, for example, I saw it used in Rollingstone.com’s article on Muscle Shoals, a new documentary film about the famous music studios in the Alabama town of the same name. In the article, writer Katie Van Syckle says, “The film unpacks the town’s musical significance by focusing on the two primary local studios—Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound….”

Syckle seems to stretch the meaning of the word a little further than Smiley does, going beyond using it to explain a statement to using it to provide a full description of a place.

Recently, I ran across the word in the 2013 book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, by Phillip Lopate. In a chapter on James Baldwin, he quotes a long (almost two-page) paragraph from Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son.”

Then he writes, “It’s all there, in this paragraph, but it requires some unpacking: Baldwin’s sheer love of language; his intoxication with adjectives and adverbs….” And he continued to breakdown or open up Baldwin’s paragraph with his own 176-word sentence.

Smiley’s use of unpack seems to have declined somewhat of late, but he’s still at it. One recent week, for example, he used it twice: in interviews with comedian David Steinberg and actress Elizabeth Moss.

Steinberg had just mentioned why he thought having the opportunity to open for jazz musicians when he was starting out as a stand-up comedian was a good experience. Smiley’s response: “Since you went there, let me follow you in. There are a couple of things you said I want to go back to and get you to unpack.”

Moss, one of the stars of “Mad Men,” had just given a number of reasons why she had taken the lead role in the new “Top of the Lake” miniseries, when Smiley remarked, “You said a couple of things I want to go back to and kind of have you unpack for me in no particular order.”

This new-to-me use of unpack is almost visual, like the opening of a flower, carrying with it the expectation of something meaningful and truthful, something not to missed.

Photo: Shutterstock/Marcin-linfernum

What if We Ran Out of Words?

IMG_0420I’ve been worrying about running out of words.

My worrying began recently when I read an interesting essay, “The Ghost Writes Back,” by Amy Boesky, on The Kenyon Review website. It’s about her experience ghostwriting several of the Sweet Valley High books in this series for teenaged girls—while also working on her PhD.

This long essay (just over 5,000 words) is worth reading. It’s well written. And Boesky provides insight into how someone could write these novels—sometimes as many as eight per year—while also attending classes, working as a teacher’s assistant, and writing her dissertation. She also talks about the unsettling feelings she had about being a ghostwriter and about keeping this side job a secret from her classmates, students, and teachers. And she discusses the difference between writing a dissertation that took five years and writing these breezy novels for which she could produce an entire chapter on a weekend morning.

Then, deep in the essay, she writes about a conversation she had with an acquaintance. The acquaintance said she thought that writing the books was creatively risky because, as Broesky asks in the piece, “How did I know that every word I ghost wrote wasn’t depleting my creative arsenal? What if you’re only born with so many words, and you use up the ones you’ve been allotted on writing somebody else’s stories? Then what?”

That statement floored me. What a frightening concept: to have only a specific allotment of words—the very source of writing and communication.

What if, I thought, we have only so many adjectives and adverbs, a limited supply of nouns, and a finite number of verbs, not to mention a restricted stockpile of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections? And worse yet, what if we have only a certain number of each specific word?

I thought of only one bright side to this tragedy: My supply of the word interesting might soon run out. Interesting is my default adjective when I want to describe something as being appealing, thought provoking, or worthy of our attention. (See the second sentence of this piece.) It’s notScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.27.41 PM a word I necessarily want to use often; there are many better choices. But it just pops into my head. And what’s worse, sometimes it seems to type itself, my fingers tapping the keys without my thinking.

I use this word—and interestingly, its adverbial cousin—too often in the first drafts of my writing. So much so that if I were to have only a limited number of specific words, my arsenal would surely be nearly empty of this one. When it ran dry, perhaps my writing, at least the first drafts of each piece, would be better, I thought.

But in thinking about Broesky’s statement, I knew I wouldn’t be better off if I could no longer use interesting or any other specific word. Not having a word at my disposal, even one I overuse, would be devastating.

What, I wondered, would it be like if every time I used a noun, say strategy, my overall supply of that word declined, as did my opportunities to use any other noun, since all of them share the same grammatical purpose?

How many times could I use the word strategy before running out? Perhaps half a million. Possibly just 30,000. Maybe only 4,877.

None of these amounts sounds very large, certainly not enough for a lifetime of writing. Strategy is a good word to use and there are lots of places where it fits most perfectly in a sentence. It’s not a word I’d like to lose anytime soon.

I wondered if I would have the same number of every word, or at least the same number of each word used as a verb, and maybe a different number for each noun. Verbs and nouns are key to good writing, and none of us could write long without them. So I would hope my supply would be as large as possible. But adverbs and adjectives are important, too.

If I had a limited supply of beautiful, for example, I wondered if it would be possible to exchange other words, which I value less, for this one. IScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.36.47 PM know I have a larger supply of  ugly than I’ll ever need. I don’t like the word and never use it. So, would it be possible to trade in a keyboard full of this word for an equivalent amount of one I treasure more highly. If so, I wondered if the exchange rate would be the same for every word: One ugly would equal one beautiful. Or would the rate vary, with maybe a really good and useful word like communications requiring as many as five harsh and jarring words like sequestration.

Would we know—from the time we start to write, begin high school or college, or when?—that we had a limited number of specific words or parts of speech? Would we know when we were running out?

I wondered how my writing would change if I knew I had to make every word count or I might not have a particular word when I most needed it. Certainly, I’d write more carefully, more slowly, cautiously choosing my words, writing fewer drafts to avoid wasting words that no one would see, rewriting sentences to minimize using those words that I most want in my arsenal.

And I wondered how I would know when I ran out of a specific word. Would beautiful just not be there anymore?

When I put my fingers on the keyboard to start typing it, would they just not move, would they be stuck in place? Or would they automatically form another word, say alluring, an almost-good-enough synonym that would have to serve my purpose every time I try to write beautiful in the future?

When beautiful is gone, would I even be able to see it in my mind? Would I have a concept of the word anymore? Maybe it would be as if it never existed. If that were to happen, would I then not recognize it or not understand its meaning when I saw it in someone else’s writing?

I wondered, finally, how many words I would have to lose before I could no longer write, and if, after all these years, I’m getting close.

My Blog: Celebrating One Year

shutterstock_85653580With this post, my 65th, I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of my blog.

In my first post a year ago, I said this blog would be about business communications. But my goal then—as now—was to take more of a sidelong glance at this topic than a direct, in-your-face, view of it.

Many people focus narrowly on one aspect of today’s business communications, covering everything there is to know about, say, social media or blogging. Some do a really good job. But most just seem to copy what they’ve seen in someone else’s post. And quite frankly, I often feel I’m reading the same article over and over again, as the third person this week provides a list of the six things you must do to succeed online or the ten things you can do wrong when tweeting.

I chose, instead, to write about what I see as the whole communications process: “word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts,” as I said in my first post.

So each week over the past year, I’ve written about whatever communications subject felt important or intriguing at the time, even if this approach produced what might seem—at first glance—to be an array of subjects unrelated to business communications.

Some posts make the connection more directly than others. For instance, my fourth post, from April, ties together a philosopher’s view of shaker furniture and Steve Jobs; a piece from November stresses the need for a company to really understand what its product is; and a post from earlier this month presents a Q&A on digital long-form content.

The subjects of other posts tie less overtly to business communications, but the link can easily be made: tattoos (two Olympians’ and my father’s) with business branding; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon with the need to write clear business communications; and the different ways “Brussels sprouts” was spelled at the Farmers Market in Madison.

A few posts may require even more thought to find the link. Among these are the September post about my dog, Henry, and the joy he gave me; an October piece about the subconsciousness of writing; and this month’s post on U.S. schools deciding not to teach cursive handwriting.

I believe this circling of my blog’s key topic helps me—and I hope my readers—to think more broadly, and yet at the same time more closely, about the business of communicating about companies, their products and services, and their actions.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vesna Cvorovic

Q&A on Long-Form Content with Jennifer Kane

Recently Jennifer Kane, a marketing/communications strategist and principal at Kane Consulting, wrote an important blog post about long-form content on the Web.

Jennifer Kane

Jennifer Kane

She starts Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by stating a fact that is often overlooked: Long-form content is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds, “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Then she provides some of these rules, which make a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

Since her “secrets” in this post are so accurate and helpful, I decided to ask her what other advice she might have for someone interested in writing and presenting better digital long-form content.

Below are her answers to my questions:

David: How narrowly or broadly do you define “long-form content?”

Jennifer: I define it pretty broadly because it really seems to be up to the reader what they consider to be “too long.” On a really basic level, if it’s a video over 5 minutes or written content that the person cannot see the end of even after scrolling down from the first view of the page to a second view of the next segment, I think most people consider that to be “long.”

Even if it’s easy to read or simple to view, if there is no easy end in immediate sight, people can be quick to make a judgment that this is going to take too much time to consume.

I wrote this post because I got trapped inside a number of long pieces I enjoyed, but wasn’t sure how long I was going to have to enjoy them.

If I left to tweet about the piece, I’d have to scroll down and find my place. If I scrolled to the end to see its full length, I’d lose my place. I basically felt stuck within the content’s awesomeness—which is lovely because it was well written, but also annoying because I, like all audience members, wanted to manage my time.

David: Does long-form content have a minimum number of words?

Jennifer: From the guest posts I do on multi-author blogs, it seems like a post that is “long” by their definition is one that is over 900 words. That’s kind of an arbitrary number, but one I keep running into.

David: Do you think that for something to be “long-form content” it must fall into a specific category of documents?

I know you consider narrative journalism as long-form content because you mention The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek as a good example. But do you consider a white paper, a bylined article, a speech, or an annual report as long-form content?

Jennifer: I think this applies to all online content—fiction or non-fiction, educational or entertaining. I do consider white papers, most bylined articles, and speeches to be long-form content.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read an annual report on line. Due to the fact that they’re graphic heavy, they seem to always be downloadable PDFs—which I think people have an easier time processing because they can view, assess and navigate the total breadth of it pretty easily.

I guess I would always define this based on how people are currently defining “average” length. If the average video is 2-5 minutes, and the average blog post 500-750 words, then “long” would be anything longer than that.

I also think this average is becoming shorter consistently over time. People have shorter attention spans, so what constitutes “too long” is always changing.

David: Finally, besides “Tunnel Creek,” would you recommend other examples of long-form content that are easy to read and follow because they are well written and well designed?

Jennifer: Here are some very good ones:

1) Most recently, the Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Usfeature in TIME. (24,105 words—amazing info).

2) I think some of the most consistently amazing long-form stuff I’ve read lately is in WIRED. Every month, they’ve usually got a whopper of an article (often not the feature) that’s a jaw dropper. For example, the recent article Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us.

3) This LEGO video is well done (a little long for me, but I’m not the target audience) and is a great example of company storytelling to boot.

4) And, then in my industry if I mention a tool/technique in a post I’m often hyperlinking to articles from CopyBlogger, ProBlogger, and Social Media Examiner because they post a lot of “definitive guide” kind of posts as well as exhaustive lists of ideas. For example:

My thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to answer these questions and providing her expert advice.