Why {And How} You Should Use Structure in Your Writing

Why and How You Should Use Structure in Your Writing

Pantsers, you should probably cover your ears and close your eyes and step away from the computer. Everyone else, lean in a little bit. I want to tell you a secret I learned in the last year: structure is your friend. Please don't confuse structure with formula. I don't expect you to use plot or nonfiction "formulas" in your writing. But you do need to give structure some thought if you want a finished project that can hold water.

One of my favorite writing quotes is from editor-turned-literary-agent Susan Rabiner. As an agent, she found that the biggest issue with submissions she received often wasn't writing quality, but conceptualization, which she defined as "the value added by the author to what is essentially a set of facts, stories, and commentary in search of a larger meaning. To conceptualize is to link these facts, stories, and commentary to a compelling point." In other words, they lacked structure.

“Part of the problem'" she writes, "is that we have all been trained to think about crafting books in terms of writing. Conceptualization is about thinking.”

With that in mind, take some time to collect resources and inspiration for structuring your project (see the tools section below for some links!). If you are writing a nonfiction essay, it might be organized based on a logical writing structure. If you are writing fiction, it might be a planning method such as Story Grid, Story Genius, or  Robert McKee's Principles of Story (if you haven’t picked one yet, do Story Genius--it’s my fave). If you’re writing a memoir, you might use the Hero's Journey outline.

Or you might chuck it all out the window and create your own unique structure (which is completely fine by the way).

The point is, make a map for your story. Otherwise it’s way too easy to get lost.


1. Get out butcher paper and markers.

2. Put on some music, pour yourself a drink, and pull out all your story notes.

3. Draw out the structure of your story. Use words, lines, pictures. Base it on an image (this is my story ladder, my story is shaped like a pie, my story is like a braid with three parts, etc...) or just map it out like an old-fashioned timeline.

4. As you draw/write/list/etc... add in details from BOTH your plot (what happens externally) and your character (what happens internally).

5. Reflect. How does it look? Is it messier than you thought? Is there a clear structure and order? Can you label anything about your structure? Is it chronological? Cause and effect? Where does your structure start to get muddy and lose shape? Can you identify why that happens?

Want some tools to help you figure this structure thing out? Gotcha covered.

- Tools for structuring nonfiction: This post on visualizing the personal essay and this one on using structure in memoir.

- Tools for structuring fiction: This post about using simple question to move your plot forward (and to make sure that everything happens for a reason), this post about using character backstory, this post about how to find a structure for your novel.

- You should also check out these seven tips for structuring your book and this post about how to structure your novel in five minutes (a bit proscriptive, but still really helpful especially if you have a floppy plot).


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Ashly Hilst2 Comments