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The Best Methods for Organizing a Writing Project


For some of us, the best way to organize a writing project is to dive right in. If this method works for you, it is by far the best. Often getting words on the page is far more important than considering precisely which words those should be. This is especially true in creative writing, and even more important for young or developing writers. Jodi Picoult famously claims You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page. As far as writing advice goes, this may be the most important for those stuck considering and spinning their wheels. For writers seeking additional structure, however, there are any number of methods for outlining work and creating a framework to speed a project along. This article is for writers searching for structure.

Before choosing an organizational framework for a project, writers must consider their time frame and the number of times they may be asked to create a similar text. A writer's approach to their organization and structure should be different for long-term vs. short-term projects, and for one-time vs. repeated projects. For that reason, advice below is divided into those categories.

Short-term repeated projects

Freelance writers and editors are often required to submit a number of short writing projects which each adhere to a similar format. Whether it be blog posts like this one, product descriptions, short stories, or technical manuals, the professional writer encounters the same kind of work repeatedly. To organize for these projects – the projects you know you'll see again – developing a method for completing them efficiently and competently is a must.

One obvious strategy involves sub-headings. When a project is subdivided in a simple and direct manner, it prompts the writer to dive in. Rather than hesitating in consideration of creating a full narrative, the writer can jump from heading to heading, writing the ideas which come to them most naturally. In this manner, a small project can be speedily finished because the writer doesn't need to pause to consider the chronology of their points – that chronology is established at the outset.

Another viable strategy, especially when consistently reiterating similar information, is to template a text. In cases where a text is nearly identical, utilizing a fill-in-the-blanks response has obvious benefit; but even when two responses aren't similar, referring to previous work is an asset. If you are writing a blog post, rather than pull up a blank Word document, pull up one of your previous blog posts to see what worked for you in the past.

Next, consider the word count of a project. Especially with shorter projects or paid work, word counts will help to structure a document. If you are using subheadings as described above, take into account the word-length which might be appropriate for each section. In most cases, try to keep each section at roughly the same word count.

Short-term one-time projects

Shorter works of fiction, and smaller academic works often have a tight turnaround schedule, but do not require repeated submissions. These are usually essays. Though the above advice concerning reusing structure and attention to word counts is still valuable, to those who are seeking an organization solution which works across every conceivable project, I suggest the fractal method.

The fractal method is a common structure – some may know it as the hamburger method – which can be applied to almost any written work, from essays, to group projects, to PowerPoint presentations. It is what most writers learn in high school, and it is always acceptable in the professional, academic, and even creative world. PhD students, novelists and professional writers use the fractal method because it is adaptable, and infinitely expandable or reducible.

The fractal method divides a work into five major sections, each of approximately equal word count. These sections are structured like containers. Three body sections are contained within an introductory section and a concluding section. Each of these major sections contains the same essential components: a hook to grab the reader's interest; three details; and a thesis or core concept. The outer layer – the introduction and the conclusion – should reference the inner layers of the structure and vice versa. This means that the claims introduced in the introduction should be proved within the body sections and should be reiterated in the conclusion section. The Haiku poetic form follows this structure, as does a standard five paragraph essay.

This is a fractal structure because it can be expanded in a number of ways while the structure remains intact. For instance, when assembling a textbook, each chapter may consist of multiple five paragraph essay structures as described above. When writing poetry, stanzas function as containers for lines, but they also act as containers for the stanzas within them. Words are not only related to those that follow and precede them, but they also act like a box in which other words are stored.

An introduction and a conclusion will always act as bookends to a work, and this structure can be nested. A complex text will have bookends within bookends within bookends. In this way – visualizing a text as a set of nested containers – a writer can more easily identify relationships between the parts of their texts and can expand on the traditional 5-paragraph format. If you are still thinking in terms of the high school hamburger metaphor, think of the fractal method as stacking three hamburgers and then adding a top and bottom bun, or taking off the tomatoes because they aren't contributing to the overall flavor. The structure remains the same – just as fractals resemble themselves – but the size has changed.

Long-term one-time projects

Novels, dissertations, and other books are often a huge commitment in terms of time and – let's be honest – emotional investment in a project. So, when faced with the challenge of putting a massive number of words on a page, some projects will never be repeated. In the case of a memorandum, an autobiography or similar text, we may never need to complete the work again, and thus it becomes a passion project.

If you're only doing something once, and that thing is a large commitment, take the time to do it right. Research the word length that you intend to reach. If you want to publish the text, find out what word lengths are appropriate for the type of text you want to publish. If you write a five hundred-thousand-word epic, it will probably never see mainstream bookshelves. Further, as noted above, word length helps you develop a structure – in a novel or textbook chapters are usually the same size, and even in a poem cantos and stanzas tend to be similar in length.

Structure your text using the tools that work for you. These may be physical cork boards, sticky notes, string and pins; or they may be digital. Digital tools are a great asset to the modern writer. Sites like World Anvil allow you to spend hours organizing your thoughts and developing a fictional setting; tools like Scrivener provide templates, folders, and word trackers; and applications like Journalistic help you make better use of your time. There are hundreds of tools you could be using to create a structure for your work, so the advice I will offer here is: choose only those tools which you need, and do not let a lack of tools prevent you from getting started. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Long-term repeated projects

In some cases, that first long-term passion project takes off and becomes a series. Perhaps a novelist has picked up a following, or a client has requested "three more textbooks, just like the first one, but on totally different subjects." In cases like this, writers are often asked to adapt their initial structure and repurpose it. The best advice here is experience, but the second-best advice might be: choose a chronology.

What order will information be presented in? A chronology can be combined with the container and fractal methods described above in order to create an outline. Ask: What will chapter one discuss? What must be discussed first, and what information can be withheld until later? In creative writing and technical writing, these questions are equally valid. When designing your structure, consider one of the following methods of determining a chronology:

  • Chronological: If the events you are describing actually took place, consider writing them in the order they happened.
  • Logical: If the reader must understand something in a particular order, or certain information is a prerequisite to later information, build the structure of your work from that starting point.
  • Categorical: If the information presented is not directly related, consider grouping related things together. A textbook may have a physics section, a biology section and a chemistry section for instance.
  • Comparative/Contrastive: Group content together based on its relation to neighboring content.

By utilizing the above categories, structures, technologies and tools, a writer should be able to structure and organize their thoughts. Hopefully, however, more time is spent writing than thinking about writing.

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