I pulled out box after box, setting them haphazardly around the room. My organization lacked something — like, say, organization… .”
Have you ever moved? Of course you have. You remember what it feels like to be overwhelmed by boxes and crates crowding every room, so jammed together that you can hardly wend your way from door to door.
I’m in the middle of that right now, having finally dragged all my junk from one side of the country to the other. I can hardly bear the disorder. I can’t find anything. I can’t clean properly. I can’t think.
In many ways, everything you ever write is like having a house packed with boxes of ideas. You know you’ve got all the essential points—somewhere. But they’re hidden in the cardboard of your brain and need to be organized. (Shudder.)
Organization is the framework underlying your writing, the backbone that determines the order and shape of your points, and the way the whole is held together.
You can’t escape organization; it’s natural and essential.
You and I are organized around skeletons. The shape of our bones determines the shape of the flesh that hangs on them. You can’t escape organization any more than we can escape our bones.
You can surely mess it up, however, if you don’t know what it is or how to apply it—or only hold some remnant of the concept left over from freshman English.
Tip 1: Two processes, analysis and synthesis, beat in the heart of organization.
My father taught me this when I was still in high school, and it’s one of the two most important points you need to understand about organization.
In analysis, the writer breaks down the overall idea. Call it what you will: thesis, theme, core idea, general proposition, etc. —it’s the one idea driving the writing. You have to start with that idea, and then you break it into its elements or parts so you can discern a hierarchy.
Put another way: you list points related to your overall idea, decide which of those points are most important, which are least important, and how the points relate to one another. That’s analysis.
The second act, synthesis, puts those elements together in a unique way to form a unity, arranging them so they make a pattern or structure not obvious before. The organization of the points helps transform them from disparate parts to a finished whole; from bones, flesh, and blood, to a healthy body.
This is where the analogy falls apart, however. Organization is not a static, linear process. It’s a feedback loop. Analyze, synthesize; analyze again, synthesize again, and so forth, the one informing the other until you have a plan that you can truly build on (to continue piling up metaphors).
Okay, you may be thinking, “This is Writing 101.” Yet it always surprises me how few people understand that it takes both analysis and synthesis, ebbing and flowing from one to the other, to craft strong structure. And without strong structure, you get weak writing. If you’re a wordsmith, you might get flashy or poetic writing, but if doesn’t have a logical core and structure, it won’t add up to much.
As I said, weak writing.
To continue with more about writing that you doubtless know but may not have thought about much (at least for years), let’s talk about paragraphs.
The paragraph is the basic unit of organization.
It follows the same logic as a sentence and includes the same basic elements—the subject and information about the subject—but on an expanded scale. A paragraph contains a central point and supportive points; it has a clear structure in itself (a beginning, middle, and an end); its points are linked to one another and to the central point. The information in a classic paragraph structure moves from the general to the specific and back to the general.
Here we come to the other most important lesson my father taught me about organization.
Tip 2: If you organize your paragraphs and your entire structure in the shape of an hourglass, you’ll always have a solid foundation on which to build your writing.
Let me explain. Sound organization is based on the one principle that you start with the most general/broadest point; move toward your narrowest, most specific supportive point; and reverse to move from the smallest point to the most general again. It forms an hourglass shape.
Along the way, your supportive points affect how your readers understand the material. Therefore, your most general point as you close—the return to your thesis in the conclusion—is not a mere restatement of what you started with. It’s an enhanced, richer statement, because now we know more than when you first stated that core thesis.
Let’s be clear about one thing here, though. I understand that there are many ways to structure your paragraphs, including forming them of a single word or spreading your “hourglass” across several paragraphs to keep them short. Likewise, there are many ways to structure your overall organization. You can play with structure to great effect.
But unless you understand these two underlying principles—analysis/synthesis as a feedback loop and the hourglass shape, you’re much more likely to write drafts that meander; to need multiple drafts as you try to figure out what you want to say; or to have parts of the writing that fit better in the overall scheme than others.
The next time you have to write something, think about the process of analysis/synthesis as you brainstorm what to include. Then try fitting your central thesis, your major ideas, and your supporting points into an hourglass pattern. One hourglass for the entire project; many hourglasses for each paragraph.
To recap, organization is active evaluation
First you take your ideas apart to see what they really are—the analysis. Then you put them together to make something new—the synthesis.
Analysis includes sorting through your thoughts to find a focus, writing that focus as a principal generalization, and determining support for that generalization. Deciding which points are most important, what the order of points should be, and which points work together in idea clusters is part analysis, part synthesis. Assembling your information to form a clear structure involves synthesis, as does the act of writing a list of points, a rough or formal outline, or casual working “directions.”
At each stage you evaluate your intent and the way your ideas match or don’t match that intent. You ping back and forth between analysis and synthesis. At each stage you bear in mind the hourglass structure and tweak your content and organization to work toward matching it.
The goal is to prepare your foundation so that you improve your chances for saying what you mean to say, for saying something unique and powerful that doesn’t muck around trying to figure out how to say it.
Back, for a second, to the boxes crowding my house. Much as I am tempted, I won’t unpack them randomly. I’ll decide on a plan and get more done, more efficiently and more effectively. The same is true of your writing. Apply an organizational plan, and you will write faster and better.
I hope you found this blog helpful. Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #25 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” Next week, I want to take a look at how to make online courses using PowerPoint and voiceover, without boring your audience into a coma. I don’t actually know the answer yet, but I’ll be trying to figure it out between now and then.
Want to learn how to make great online courses? To get your free copy of “12 Steps to Killer Course Content,” and weekly tips, click here.
Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).
Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course: https://www.marcymcdonald.com/contact.html