Writing Structures You May not Know

Nov 1, 2011 | Better Writing

If your blog posts or articles aren’t getting the results you desire, you might want to blame your English teachers.

My English teachers taught me a lot about literature and writing, but they only taught me one way to structure my writing. It was like a “bottom-up pyramid.” You start by laying the groundwork for a conclusion that you’ll reach at the end of the document.  You then martial your arguments, present your logic, and proceed toward the conclusion.

That’s great for academic papers, but there are other structures that work better for other kinds of writing. Here are some of them.

Journalism Structure
Journalism students learn this one. It’s a top-down pyramid. You start with the most interesting point and move from that down through successive levels of detail.

Newspaper writers write this way because it’s easy to edit.  When it’s time to cut for space, editors just take off the stuff at the bottom since it is less important than the stuff at the top.  This works well in a newspaper situation where interest, rather than logic, persuasion, or depth of resources is the primary concern.

Magazine Structure
Magazine articles are written for interest, but differently than the journalistic structure.  Many good magazine articles use a 2-3-1 structure.  I’m indebted to the Million Dollar Writing Coach, Bud Gardner, for this one. Bud taught at American River College for years. He’s called the “Million Dollar” coach because his students have produced well over a million dollars in article sales.

With the 2-3-1 structure you lead off with the second most interesting point, follow it with the third most interesting point, and conclude with the most interesting point of all.

In some respects, the 2-3-1 structure is a cross between that bottom-up pyramid and a structure that I call the sermon.  For years, seminarians were taught that a sermon should have three basic points.  Another name for this structure is the tripod structure.

Sometimes, your purpose in writing is to persuade.  For over a century, advertising writers have used the AIDA structure.

In its classic form, AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action.  From my experience as a copywriter and my research into how people buy things, I’ve modified that formula.  For me, AIDA means Attention, Involvement, Data, and Action.

Planning Structure
If you want to present a plan, there’s a structure based on research by Dr. William Miller at SRI International that works well. It’s great for structuring long proposals and short executive summaries. Dr. Miller identified four questions in his innovation styles research that people ask when presented with a proposal or with change.

Over the years, I’ve modified Miller’s questions a little.  Here is my list.

What’s the current situation?
What’s the goal or end state?
Who are the stakeholders?
What process will we use?
What resources will we need?
What would be great to do if time and budget were not a factor?

Story Structure
We love stories. When a speaker says, “Let me tell you a story,” we perk right up. Stories are the tool humans have used for millennia to makes sense of and communicate information. The basic story begins at the beginning and ends at the end.

The AA Structure
There are lots of variations on the basic story structure. I like one that I call the AA structure based on the way stories are used at Alcoholics Anonymous.  In this structure, the storyteller begins with the present, then jumps back to the past, and brings the reader forward.

Think of these structures as rules in your writing toolkit. Pick the structure that works best for the writing challenge you face.