To write effectively, you need to pick the right structure that matches the purpose of your document.
Not all documents should be structured the same.
What do I mean by “structure”? I mean how you organize your document—what information do you include and in what order. The structure has to match the purpose of your document (remember: Know the big picture).
In 2020, I attended a webinar by Dr. Julian Tang, then head of research communications and editorial at the National University of Singapore. He had a wonderful diagram of the different kinds of structures that are commonly used in scientific writing ⬇
There were so many more shapes than I knew 😮
But don’t worry: you don’t have to master each one. If you know what you are writing for (your purpose—which of course you know 😉), you can look at some common structures and see if any of them would work for you. If one does, then great! You won’t have to create a structure from scratch.
Common structures (or templates)
Here are a few common structures. (You can think of them as templates.)
1. Starting with the background/context
In some structures, you start by giving the background; the main message comes afterwards. This is the kind of writing many of us learn in school.
Good for: academic writing
Academics are familiar with this one. It’s what many of us know coming out of school.
The letters in this acronym come from the general structure:
Academics of all types are expected to know how to write using this structure. At the same time, we need to remember that outside of academia, this structure may not be the best one to get your message across.
☘ Other “background first” structures
Good for: proposals, concept notes, project reports (in some sectors)
Project proposals can be similar to research reports in that you start off by giving the background to justify what you’re proposing, followed by the main content of your proposal.
How much background you include will depend on your audience. In the private sector, you will likely need to start with the bottom-line message because your investors or executives want to know if it’s worth reading your document. Take a look at the “4 P’s of proposal writing.”
For a development aid organization, however, a proposal or concept note might look like this:
- (Executive summary)
- Project description
- Target population
- Logframe and indicators
- … and so on
(Even though I list this as a “background first” structure, it doesn’t mean you should be long and overly detailed. Strive to be concise.)
2. Starting with the key messages
We’re taught in schools to start with the background, followed by the content (such as the details of a study), and then draw the conclusion at the very end. But in real life, this isn’t the way that most people like to get their information.
We all want to know the news (the main point) quickly—maybe we don’t have time to read the rest or want to decide whether it’s worth the effort of reading the whole thing.
Martin Cutts, in the Oxford Guide to Plain English, points out that most readers “want to get in, get on, and get out” so it’s best to “put the big news early.”1
So if you need to start with the key messages, here are some structures you might use.
☘ Inverted pyramid
Good for: press releases, news articles
- Key point at the beginning: the who, what, when, where, why
- The rest of the information is presented in order of importance.
The inverted pyramid is often the structure you see in newspaper articles. If there isn’t enough space to print the whole article, the editor could just cut from the end.
☘ The “kebob” or The Wall Street Journal structure
Good for: feature articles
The inverted pyramid might be good for press releases, but it’s a little dry for telling a story. That’s where the “kebob” (“kebab”) style comes in. In this structure, you tell the reader the significance of the piece (the “so what”) early on to compel them to keep reading.
- Anecdote/fact/statement to draw readers in (following the kebob metaphor, this might be a spicy onion?)
- “Nutgraf”: the “so what” of the piece that tells readers why the story matters (a juicy tomato?)
- Details to back up and fill out your story (the pieces of meat)
- (Wrap up: could go back to the original anecdote/fact/statement, could use a quote—another piece of onion)
This style was made popular by the Wall Street Journal, a leading US newspaper. I’ve read that some people follow this format religiously (especially the nutgraf), but former Wall Street Journal reporter William Blundell says it’s not an unbreakable rule.2
I must say this structure is not easy to do well—maybe because it’s more than just plugging in information and requires us to hone our storytelling skills. William Blundell’s book is a great resource if you want to learn more.
Structures specific to your document
If you can use one of the common structures as a template, then great. But what you ultimately use will depend on the purpose of your document.
So if you’re writing a letter to request a donor to accept some programmatic changes, you might get something like this:
- Opening greetings & reference to a program number or past correspondence (the formalities) and a brief line of why you’re writing them (“I’m writing to seek your approval for changes to the planned activities”). (Note that you still say up front why you’re writing.)
- Background: summary of the agreed programme (as a reminder)
- What circumstances changed
- What changes you are proposing
- What you would like them to approve
- Closing greetings
Or if you’re writing a flyer inviting people to apply for a training program, it might be more like this:
- What is the training program? (Title, topic)
- Who is it for?
- What will participants learn?
- When will it take place? What are the activities?
- What is the cost?
- How do you apply?
To decide what structure you need, go back to the big picture. Remind yourself whom you’re writing for (your target audience) and what you are trying to get them to do/feel/think.
Imagine yourself telling or talking to someone about your content. How would you grab their attention? What are the essentials that you have to tell them? What order would you talk about the details?
To sum up:
- You have to structure your writing in a way that matches your purpose.
- Sometimes, you can follow well-established structures, like IMRaD for academic papers or inverted pyramids for press releases.
- Go back to the big picture: remember whom you’re writing for a what you’re trying to get them to do/think/feel.
- Think about how you might talk to someone about your content. Use that to guide your structure/flow.
Here are some resources to get you started.
- Organizing Ideas: From the Learning Portal of the College Libraries Ontario. Talks about patterns of organization and tools you could use to plan your writing.
- Organization and Structure: From Purdue Online Writing Lab. A good intro to organization and structure (focused on academic writing).
- How to Structure & Organize Your Paper (link to PDF): This 8-page guide from Washington University explains how plan your argument.
There are many many many resources for this but here are some from Dr. Claire Bacon, a highly respected scientific editor whose articles I admire.
- To Sum Up. . .How to write a good Abstract
- Setting The Scene: How to write a clear Introduction to a research paper
- Show Them How It’s Done: What to include in the Methods section of a research paper
- The Results Are In: How to write the Results section of your research paper
- A Strong Finish: How to write the Discussion section of your research paper
- How to structure an article: The inverted pyramid
- Inverted Pyramid: Writing for Comprehension Detailed (but not too long) explanation of how to use and write inverted pyramid structure, by Amy Shade on Nielson Norman Group blog.
- The Kabob structure: anecdote—nut graph—meat—meat—anecdote
- Structure my story: A story analysis: Also on the kebab style – also known as a The Wall Street Journal Formula. Anecdote -> nutgraf -> body, body, body (info & details) -> anecdote/description/quote.
- William E. Blundell, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on The Wall Street Journal Guide (New York: Plume, 1988)
You can also find other structures, for example in:
- Send better emails with SCRAP (Doris & Bertie)
- 4 P’s of proposal writing (Rob Ashton)
- Both SCRAP and the P’s are in Martin Cutts’s Oxford Guide to Plain English, 5th ed. 2020, although Cutts talks about the 5P’s: position, problem, possibilities, proposal, and packaging.
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