business development, craft, Writing improvement

How to Organize Your Writing – Work Backwards

You’re not going to believe this, but this (this exact sentence, that started with “You’re not going to believe this, but this [this exact sentence…]”) was written last. Read on to find out how. More importantly, why.

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Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

What’s the hardest part of writing an article (or report, or memo), whether for your industry publication, an online community, your boss or the C-suite, or even just your own blog?

Some will say the hardest part is just getting started.

Like, that big blank canvas is intimidating.

Overwhelming.

Just staring at you, mocking your inability to get out anything reasonable.

For others, it’s the organization.

What do I say first? And then? Where do I end?

For non-writers, the structure can be just as difficult as the execution.

But it doesn’t have to be.

I can’t always help with the blank page syndrome. For organizing your thoughts, though, I can at least give you a structure for how to plan and then actually write the damn thing.

And this is not about how to prove your ideas with appropriate examples, or how to develop an appropriate voice or tone. [We can talk about those other times.] This is a process for you to organize your article creation, one that I apply myself when I sit down to write.

There are about as many methods as there are professional writers’ hands. (Yes, that means some have more than one method. Don’t shoot the messenger.) I have no idea whether this will work for you as well as it does for me. But give it a shot next time you’re wondering how to get started and how to fill up the space on the page. You just might find your next great productivity hack.

With that, let’s talk about how you can develop a quality piece with all of the essential parts: an Executive Summary (or Abstract), an Introduction, the all-important Body Text, and a Conclusion. It might be counter-intuitive, but I’m actually going to recommend you plan your writing completely opposite to how your reader will experience your article.

Start With the End In Mind

Yeah, this is a reference to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And it’s a reference to Start With Why. It’s also the exact answer to the question I ask when people want my help creating content: “Why are you writing, exactly? What do you want your audience to know?”

Just start listing out the lessons you’d like them to take away once they’ve finished reading your article. They don’t have to be in order, they don’t have to be pretty, they just have to be on the page. Refinement comes later.

Prune Out The Less Effective Fluff

If you’re writing an article, you’re going to want one, or at most two, conclusions for your audience to take away afterwards. If you’ve got three or more, you’ll have to do some hard work and pick the one or two that you really want to emphasize.

The great thing about having written all of them out, though, is that you’re not banishing those ideas to the hinterland, never to return again. If they’re related, plan them for another article! If they are absolutely integral to the understanding of the most important one or two, then maybe it’s not an article but should be delivered in a longer format: a series of articles, a White Paper, or even an eBook.

Once you’ve identified your audience’s most important take-away, it’s time to get busy.

Create Strong Roots

You’re still not actually writing at this point. You’re doing more outlining than anything else: these are the two conclusions that lead to final answer #1, and these are the four theories which support those two conclusions, and these are the ten data points which underlie the four theories.

Create your outline as if you were working from the trunk of a tree down into the roots: trace back all of your supporting arguments to their fundamental causes, and map out how you’re going to lead the reader from one item to the next.

When you’ve got a comprehensive outline, then you can start to write the Body Text. But maybe not from the beginning to the end.

Don’t Assume You Have To Write Linearly

Your audience is going to read from the start to the finish, obviously. That’s what we’re trained to do from age six.

But you, as the author, as the sculptor of their journey through your article, don’t need to actually write section one before section two. Write what’s most comfortable first, and get into the rhythm that way. Work out the kinks of your tone and voice with the elements that are most automatic, because you will often spark other ideas you didn’t expect as you’re firing across all your neurons.

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Photo by The Digital Marketing Collaboration on Unsplash

You’ll find that you spend your time working on the various parts of the Body Text in spurts. It’s a little chaotic and can be hard to get used to, especially for linearly-inclined brains.

Don’t be surprised, though, if you end up appreciating this more flexible approach.

For me, even in this article, I’ve been jumping around on the page, moving words and whole paragraphs at a time, sometimes leaping from section to section, to capture what’s coming out of my head at that moment. I don’t want to be rigidly tied to the “first-to-last” order when I’m being creative.

That’s just not how our brains work. They make connections we didn’t see at times we didn’t expect. Go with it. Learn to embrace the volatility and minimal direction. You have time for refinement later.

Write Your Conclusion Next-to-Next-to-Last

Your Conclusion should summarize the important lessons you identified at the beginning. You may have even written the conclusion right after you outlined. That’s okay, and it’s a good check

When you write the conclusion, then, read back over your text and ask yourself, Where did I say that? It’s a good opportunity to check your work and confirm that you’ve gotten everything you wanted into the text itself. If you can’t find where you proved what you wanted to, go back to the text and add a section, drop in an example, or make the logical development of the idea more obvious.

And Your Introduction Next-to-Last

You want to have all of the details of your article (or report or memo) already finished before you write the introduction and conclusion. If you start at the introduction, you might find yourself introducing more ideas than you actually have space for. Then, you’ll end up trying to write the article to conform to the specifications you set out in the introduction. This can lead to output that’s too long, or unfocused, or wandering.

You’ll keep on track by remembering your structure and only writing the Conclusion after you’ve clearly laid out the salient points in the text itself.

After the Body matches the Conclusion, you’ll be able to write the right Introduction, one that appropriately sets the stage for what’s to come. Don’t give away too much information too early, because that’s what the text is for.

Get Feedback and Revise

No matter how clear you think you are in your prose, with your examples, or based on your outline, you probably won’t get it right the first time. Mostly this is due to “inside-the-jar” syndrome. If you’re in a jar of your own problems, you can’t read the label that tells what those problems are, because you’re inside the jar!

You need an outside perspective. Have a friend or colleague read your draft and tell you the ABCD’s: what’s Awkward, what’s Boring, what’s Confusing, or what’s Drifting (off-topic).

Once you have an idea of where you’re going wrong, you can take a look at your article again with impartial eyes, and refine where necessary. This is where you’ll apply your [DELETE] key liberally. It’s there for a reason.

Write the Executive Summary (or Abstract) Last

I know, I know, not everything has an Executive Summary. But many will. They’ll be a 2-sentence description of the article as a teaser, or it might even be an actual abstract or summary if you’re writing a memorandum or report. So if this part isn’t critical to your operations, you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on it. Putting it last means you aren’t going to be doing unnecessary work if you find in the middle that you topic has changed from what you originally intended.

If everything above hasn’t convinced you not to start writing with the Executive Summary, just remember this quote: “So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Sure, the original context was about not being jealous of others, but it works well in this context too. What you work on last will be read first, and what you work on first will be read last.

Wrapping It Up

And you’re done! Here’s a quick review of this efficient method to create an article, report, or memo for whatever audience you’re impacting:

  1. Begin with the end in mind.
  2. Make sure you have chosen a clear message to be delivered.
  3. Work backwards through the outline.
  4. Write the Body in whatever non-linear fashion you choose.
  5. Write the Conclusion as a check that your body text includes everything you wanted.
  6. Write the Introduction.
  7. Get feedback and revise.
  8. If necessary, write the Executive Summary. You can only do this last because even though you might have an idea where it’s going to go, you can’t be sure. Putting this last ensures you set the appropriate stage.

And while you might not yet believe me, think about this: the words that you read first I wrote last, and these, that you’re reading last, I wrote (or planned) first. Game – set – match … Me.

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Stephan Mathys is an author and communication strategist for actuaries, engineers, and data scientists. His forthcoming eBook is called It’s Not About the Data: 12 Communication Strategies for Left-Brain Professionals. Send an e-mail to stephan@sjmcopywriting.com to get a sneak peek and provide your feedback, which will obviously help improve the final version.

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