Unlock Clarity by Picking the Perfect Structure for Your Prose

Unlock Clarity by Picking the Perfect Structure for Your Prose

Whether you have a manuscript in hand or are trying to get started on one, picking an organizational principle can be a big step in helping it take shape. This might be the first step in getting going, or it might be a late step after all the words have poured out onto the screen. Or it might come during revision, when it’s apparent that what made it to the page doesn’t seem to fit the original shape you had in mind when you began.

What are organizational principles for written material?

Unlike a mission statement or hierarchy for an organization, and organizing principle for a book (or website, etc.) isn’t the ideal (or chain of command) around which it is shaped, it’s an outline and order around which to order the content. There are all sorts of ways to organize content. Some are standard for certain types of content (click the heading below to open the table), while others might be innovative in that genre.

Frameworks and their Genre/Media Uses
Organizational Principle Typical Genre Use
academic journal articles and academic studies (not essays)
alphabetical dictionary
encyclopedic guide
handbook or topical guide
[phone] directory
categorical annual report
cookbook (and recipes)
events guide
style guide
travel and attraction guides
user guide
chronological event report
events guide
memoir or biography
step-by-step guide
geographical atlas
international organization membership roster
plant catalogue
travel guide
inverted pyramid* newspaper & magazine articles
web page
known to unknown handbook or topical guide
narrative arc creative non-fiction (primarily to entertain)
progression of questions FAQ
game rulebook
handbook or topical guide**
instruction manual
*Inverted pyramid is top-loading of 5 Ws, trailing off to less and less important content as it goes on.
**e.g., eye surgery pamphlet

For the reader, the principle is not stated, but is evident in the order of the contents and possibly in the headings and subheadings (and thus in the table of contents). Readers don’t see the principle directly, but they see the effects of it. Those effects serve as a kind of GPS, guiding the reader through the material. It can even give them a sense of whether it contains what they want in a format that serves their needs; thus structure leads to buying decisions, or any decision to engage further with the material.

Structure <—> purpose

Consider a dictionary, for example, alphabetical order suits the vast majority of dictionary users. But for early language learners, a conceptual grouping (like we might see in a word book designed by Busy Town author Richard Scarry) can be even more useful. Conversely, style guides are usually organized thematically (or in categories) but those used by journalists (e.g., AP and CP) are organized alphabetically! Both organizing principles are quite useful for the user; they’re just different.

But could a narrative fiction be arranged alphabetically? How about arranging a story categorically, by “circle” in relationship to the main character or event? That would be a surprise!

How do you know what works?

Looking at other books in the same field is a good indication of what others thought would work, and conveys somewhat what works. To get the best sense of whether a structure will work, field testing is needed. (See the whole production process in the free project planner.)

Further Reading

Does size matter?

Yes. Not only does size control the cost of editing and producing the material, but it also affects who wants to buy it and how much they are willing to pay. Consider, as a basic example, the difference in cost and appeal between a pamphlet and a handbook. Then there’s tradition and what the audience has come to expect; every genre has a typical length.

Further constraining the structure to speak to a specific small, well-defined audience helps contain the size of a manuscript. This also makes it easier to market with that niche reader in mind.

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