If you've ever written anything longer than a typical blog (800 words of less), you've had to agonize over structure.
Structuring a piece of longform writing is the bane of every writer.
Longform content typically has multiple sections, with a narrative that gradually builds in intensity and significance.
This is also called the narrative or story arc.
You take the reader on a journey:
You start in Los Angeles and end in New York.
While most blogs are shortform, longer blogs can also be a form of longform. Articles are most often longform.
And certainly books are longform.
Longform writing projects can be frustratingly difficult to organize.
Think of Your Sections as "Movements"
Melissa and I discuss this a lot with those we coach:
As you grapple with how to structure your writing project, think of your article or book as a a series of movements.
For example, a 4,000-word article might have four or five movements.
Thinking of structure as movements, conceptually, helps us begin to think of what needs to happen to MOVE the story or idea along.
Map out Your Movements on a Whiteboard
Or on whitepaper. Or even on a yellow legal pad, held horizontally.
Whatever works for you.
Write "Movement 1" on the whiteboard and then list what needs to happen in this movement to get your idea or story to Movement 2.
Within each Movement, there is often a "beginning, middle, and an end."
Don't overthink it.
Let's say I wanted to write a 5,000-word article on fly fishing and how wading the big western rivers is risky, no matter what time of year you fish.
This is what I would put on the whiteboard to start organizing my article:
Beginning: Open with a story about when I almost drowned in the Yellowstone River.
Middle: Use the story to make a point about the risks of wading while fishing.
End: Create a transition paragraph that lays out my thesis for the article about safety.
Melissa and I really like the concept of "movements" for structuring articles, book chapters, and entire books.
You've probably heard these terms:
Today, I want to explain what a "developmental edit" is.
Believe me, you want a developmental edit. It's arguably the most helpful of all the types of editing.
The 4 Components of a Developmental Edit
If you're writing longform (an article or monograph or a book), you may need someone to help you with the big rocks of writing a longer piece:
1. The thesis.
Every article and book has a thesis. You can't write without one. Or, rather, you can, but you'll struggle to complete the project. Another phrase for a "thesis" is "big idea." Every piece of longform has a single idea that governs the writing.
A developmental editor will work with you to identify your thesis. It must be sharp, crisp, and narrow.
You should be able to write your thesis in a clear sentence. Specific is good, general is bad.
2. The narrative arc.
Every article or book takes the reader on a journey. That's true whether you're writing nonfiction or fiction. You start in one place - and end in another.
A developmental editor will help you wrestle with the beginning and end of the arc. Obviously, as you write longform, the narrative arc may change. But you need to start your writing project with the story arc in mind.
And have a destination in mind. The end must be emotionally satisfying to the reader.
3. Overall structure
Blogs are quite easy to write. There is little structure. You open with a statistic or an anecdote - and 800 words later, you've wrapped up your point.
But with longform, structure is critical to creating a sense of flow for the reader. Structure helps the writer create and sustain tension.
Again, this is true with nonfiction and fiction longform.
A developmental editor helps you map out where you want to take the reader.
If you're writing a memoir, for example, which scenes should end up in the first chapter?
4. Chapter structure.
There are few good books on structure.
One of the best is "Draft No.4" by John McPhee. He is a long-time New Yorker writer, and his book has some great insights about structure.
The reason for so few books on this subject, I believe, is that each piece of longform is so unique.
There are some general principles (for example, an inductive approach to the subject or a deductive approach), but there seems to be a natural flow that comes only as the writer agonizes during the writing process.
What should come first? What should be second?
A good developmental editor can spot flaws in the structure of a chapter, help you move items around, and recommend adding stories, for example, to buttress your point.
Find Some Ideal Readers!
You can see that developmental editing is crucial in making progress on your writing project.
If you don't have a professional to help you, use readers to give you feedback.
These readers should not be your daughter, your boyfriend, your mum, or...
Didn’t you hear? Humans have the attention span of a goldfish.
The statement may be a stretch (even though Ted Lasso made us all believe it’s an immutable truth!), but the idea behind it isn’t. The attention span of a human is short.
You may wonder how a person’s short attention span affects your writing. We did some math and made a few hypotheses. Read below to find out more.
How Fast Do I Read?
Let’s begin by establishing some parameters.
On average, adults read 220 to 350 wpm (words per minute). This does not include technical, software reading, which takes far longer (and probably more brain power) to complete. College-age people (19- to 23-years-old) read, on average, 300 to 350 wpm. And high schoolers read 200 to 300 wpm.
Will This Chapter Ever End?
Most chapters fall between a 1500- and 5000-word count. That’s not to say that some chapters are longer (as can be seen in popular fiction series such as The Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones). But, for the most part, chapters will fall into this range. Especially in nonfiction.
The sweet spot for chapter length will be 3000 to 4000 words.
20 Minutes Is My Limit
Research has concluded that the optimal attention span in adults is 20 minutes. “Optimal” means your audience is engaged at their fullest capacity.
No matter how interesting your topic may be—whether it’s a speech, lecture, or piece of writing—20 minutes appears to be the limit. There will be those outliers who exceed a 20-minute attention span—who have a natural ability to spellbind us with their words—but we’re focusing on average people. Like you and me.
Consider the previous parameters established. If an adult reads 220 wpm, they will start to lose attention (after a 20-minute period) at a 4400-word count. If an adult reads 350 wpm, they will start to lose attention (after a 20-minute period) at a 7000-word count.
Forget Everything Else. Curiosity and Tension Are Your Greatest Allies
Now you’re probably wondering: how do I keep my reader’s attention?
This may relate to previously mentioned research on words read per minute and the attention span of the average human. Emphasize may.
You can research all you want about words read per a minute, the average length of a chapter, the average attention span of a human, etc.—but none of that really matters.
Humans—readers—are curious beings. We pick up a book and want to know what happens to the characters, to uncover the mystery, to learn more about complex ideas. It is our curiosity that encourages us to read a book in the first place.
And it is our curiosity that leads to anticipation. Anticipation keeps us reading. We want to know what happens next. We want to know if our characters will make it out alive, if they heal from their trauma, etc. We want to know why an author’s ideas matter—more specifically, if they matter to me.
This is how...
What if I told you that your dream will come true and you’ll publish a book?
Now, what if I told you it will take 14 years before you get published?
That’s bittersweet, right? Jennifer Risher, author of We Need to Talk, a memoir about wealth, attended multiple writer’s conferences and rewrote hundreds of manuscripts for her book. And she was rejected each time. It took her 14 years before she would be published.
In this blog post, we talk about what to do when your book is rejected—specifically how you can use the time to improve your writing and thinking for a better book.
Rejection Is Not the End of Your Story
Rejection can make you feel like your story “isn’t good enough.” But don’t let it dampen your passion for your idea. Jennifer believed she had a story that needed to be told. Her constant rejection—partly due to publishers’ bias about her topic, wealth—further solidified her belief that she needed to share her story. Rejection might have been a setback, but it didn’t permanently derail her. She chugged along for 14 years, rewriting her manuscripts, improving her writing, and fine-tuning her thesis until she published her book.
Too many people give up on their story too soon. Refer to our talk with literary agent, Adria Goetz, who’s heard of people facing a hundred rejections before connecting with a publisher. Sometimes it’s the 101st time that is the big breakthrough.
Do you believe in the story you’re writing? Do you believe it needs to be shared? If you answered yes, then keep writing. Rejection is not the end of your story.
What to Do When Your Book Is Rejected: Ask, “Do I Have a Solid Thesis?”
There is a payoff to 14 years of rejection—other than finally getting published. You’re offered time to get into the weeds of your book. To improve your writing.
Embrace the opportunity to mature as a thinker and writer.
If your project was rejected, consider redefining your thesis. All nonfiction books—memoirs included—must include a meta idea, or thesis. It’s the main focus of your book! It might be why you were rejected. Jennifer came to realize, during her years of rewrite, that she lacked a solid thesis. Her book did not have a purpose other than for her to emote her experiences. She realized she needed to define, sharpen and refine her thesis.
To define your thesis, you’ll need to reconsider your core audience. You may find that your rejected manuscript was written to a general audience. You’ll want to position your writing for your minimal viable audience. Ask yourself: “Who am I writing this book for?” Specify your audience based on your answer. This will help you determine what subject you’re writing on.
What To Do When Your Book Is Rejected: Redefine Your Narrative Arc
Once you’ve determined your core audience, consider your narrative...
Making writing a part of your life is not like running an errand.
It's not as easy (and as emotionally satisfying) as scratching off an item on your to-do list.
Writing is all about progress. Small steps.
Small wins over time that add up to a thousand miles of writing progress.
"Win the Day"
Years ago, I attended a live event for realtors. I wasn't a realtor, but the event was a marketing workshop, and I had just started a business. I thought I could learn a few things.
I'll never forget one of the aphorisms that the speaker trumpeted:
"Win the day."
He made the point that some days, it may be only one small act that enables you to declare at the end of the day, "I won the day."
Sometimes it's just showing up.
That's really true with writing. Writing one paragraph is all you can do.
So do it.
And then you've won the day.
"Win the Day" in 2022
If you want to become a writer, you write. Writers write.
It's all about the small acts of courage that add up over time.
* Maybe you can take a writing class or workshop in the first quarter of 2022.
That's progress. That's "winning the day."
* Maybe you can set a goal: "I'm going to journal once a week in 2022."
* Or, "I'm going to write one article for my professional association."
* Or, I'm going to sit for 45 minutes once a week and write whatever comes to mind.
* Maybe's it's joining a like-minded community of people who want to make writing a part of their lives.
Figure out how to "win the day" in 2022 as it relates to your writing.
In this edition of Tipster, we encourage you to journal with a free spirit.
Today, I'm making a very simple point:
When you journal, you are not "writing."
You are not crafting sentences. And wrestling with structure. At least I'm not.
I am simply journaling.
Don't ruin your journaling by trying to write like you would if you were writing an article or book chapter.
My Two Types of Journaling
I keep a couple journals. One is more narrative. I write complete sentences. But not always. I try to remember funny stories or capture especially good thoughts.
But I also will simply use a bulleted list to remember a particular day. I do that when I fly fish.
Recently, I was in Montana for a week, fishing in and around Yellowstone National Park. Here is a bulleted list from one of the days:
* Got up around 5:30, left about 6:15, and drove in darkness to Gardiner, MT.
* Arrived at the Gardner River around 7:45
* Hiked over to the honey hole
* Tried euro nymphing … caught my first fish of the day on a stone fly nymph
* Then caught another 7 or 8
* Big big fish
* Hook jawed
* All brown trout, all runners
* Alternated fishing the run
* Saw a grizzly bear track on the way back to the car
* Ate at the Cowboy Grill for lunch, had chili and a salad
* Then drove over to Bozeman, thought about fishing the Lower but didn’t.
* Steve picked up some waders at Rivers Edge
* Then drove back to Livingston and dropped off our stuff at the Yellowstone Pioneer Lodge
* Then drove to Chico Hot Springs for dinner, had a petite filet, with salad
* Drove up to Chico, came back but there was a tractor trailer that had rolled over, went another way back to the highway to get back to Livingston
* Queen bed for two story. Woman said, “I didn’t want to say anything.”
You can see I did more eating than fishing that day! Ha!
Journals Are a Source for Your Writing
I want to free you up to journal, an important source of ideas and stories for your writing.
I've kept journals sporadically for years. I'm always glad when I do.
Don't stress about the writing in your journal. Just journal. Write later.
“How do I get published in the Harvard Business Review…or another prestigious publication?”
For many business professionals, this question is always at the forefront. To get published in the Harvard Business Review or other top tier publications is to feel like you’ve made it. You’ve got credibility.
But, if it were easy to do, everyone would have a featured article. It’s not easy.
We sat down with Rose Hollister, author of Nobody Told Me and a consultant who specializes in business performance onboarding, to talk about how she got published in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and MIT Sloan Management Review.
Connections Build Success
Forbes, Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, receive dozens of submissions every day. And they discard dozens of submissions daily. So, what submissions snag their attention?
Familiar names. Writers whom they have worked with prior. Writers whom they trust and whose work is acceptable.
If you’re name isn’t familiar, work your network. Connect with published writers, build solid relationships, and then share your ideas with published writers.
Rose did just that. Early on in her career, Rose was introduced to Michael Watkins, a published, best-selling author who is also published in Harvard Business Review. Rose made an effort to get to know Michael, and once they became close acquaintances, she started to share her ideas with him.
One day, while at a client site with Michael, Rose shared another one of her ideas. Michael approved of the idea and when Rose returned to her home that night, she wrote down her first draft.
She didn’t dawdle. She committed to her idea, completed the first draft, and sent her copy to Michael. They entered an agreement to co-write a piece. A piece that would be published in Harvard Business Review.
Learn from Rose. Step out of your comfort zone, be friendly, and network your path to publication.
Don’t Miss the Opportunity
It’s easy to think an idea to death. And never actually get started writing.
When Rose shared her idea with Michael and received his greenlight, she immediately started writing. She didn’t hesitate. She didn’t question whether or not she should—or could—write a piece for the Harvard Business Review. She took initiative of the project and put in the hard work.
When opportunities come your way, seize them. Don’t allow self-doubt, perceived lack of experience, or fear control your decision. When you’re presented with an opportunity to write or co-write for a significant publication, accept it!
It will require significant effort on your part. And if you’re working with one or more co-authors, you will encounter problems between partnerships. But the payoff is worth it.
Co-Writing—What You Need to Know
When you finally receive the opportunity to publish in a prestigious magazine, you might encounter the difficulties of...
In this edition of Tipster, we muse the importance of conclusions.
We all lose steam as we write. The work of writing is mentally exhausting, sometimes crushingly so.
Our tendency is to get about 80% done with our work - whether writing a blog, an article, a book chapter - or even an entire book - and then peter out.
We trail off.
It's easy to give only a passing thought to how our blog, article, or book chapter ends.
And yet ... the final impression of our writing is what is most lasting.
It's what our readers, well, read last.
What comes last might mean the difference between recommending your book to a friend. Or not.
The point is: Pay attention to your endings.
The Book End Strategy
This is one of the most popular ways to end well: take the opening story in your introduction ... and refer to it again in the conclusion.
In short, if you open with a story in the introduction, don't give away all the cookies in the introduction. Perhaps leave the final resolution of the story for the ending.
Or you can connect a phrase from the introduction - and restate the phrase in the ending.
This can be done with fiction and nonfiction writing.
Recently, I read a blog post for our weekly Roadtrippers writers group. I had written the piece several years earlier. The post is about fly fishing - but mostly about my relationship with my dad and his friends who are now all dying.
I opened the the short blog post with a quote from the movie "A River Runs through It" - one of the great fly fishing movies ever. Some of you will remember the movie because of the young, hunky Brad Pitt as the troubled younger brother in the family.
Here's part of the quote, what the narrator of the movie says at the end of this classic:
But when I’m alone in the half light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul and memories. And the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four count rhythm. And a hope that a fish will rise. Only the river, which has flowed since the beginning of time, remains.
In my conclusion of the blog post, I referred back to the phase "And a hope that a fish will rise."
Here is how I closed out the blog post:
And if for some reason I am granted days greater in number than those of my friends, and my kids are too busy to meet me at the river, I will walk the edges of the river alone.
What remains when the only companion left is the river itself is the joy of fly fishing that comes with the hope of a rising fish.
Okay, that's it for this edition of Tipster. There are other ideas for ending well, but I'll take those up another time.
This week, our tip comes from Mary Holder Naegeli, one of our Roadtrippers who is preparing to write a book. Mary is a lung cancer survivor, and she tells her story in
Deep Breathing: Finding Calm amid Cancer Anxiety.
Here is her mini-plan for preparing to write her next book:
Clearing the Deck for Writing
I have less than a month to prepare myself and my environment for eight weeks of focused writing starting January 2. I plan on spending every morning in my home office at work on a non-fiction book that is already outlined.
What do I have to do to get ready for this concentrated effort?
1. Prepare my writing space
• Declutter. File the last writing project, get rid of the stuff on my work surface so I can spread out the new project;
• Collect the books and resources needed for the project and put them on an accessible shelf;
• It will be winter—evaluate need for a space heater? Better lighting? and
• Check my ergonomics: chair, desk height, consider an “elevator desk” that permits me to stand for at least ten minutes an hour.
2. Prepare my resources
• Update word-processing software. Resolve any technical issues;
• Gain access to books or libraries that I need; and
• Line up consultants, professors, or other resource people to be available for questions during the writing period.
3. Prepare my time
• Update personal calendar and mark the writing period;
• Finish projects that can’t wait until March (e.g. all “Christmas” or holiday decorations put away);
• Prepare to unplug from whatever social media drains my time unnecessarily;
• With my spouse or roommate, negotiate expectations and practices for time together and apart; and
• Decline any new invitations to write, speak, or create during the writing period. Practice best time management for ongoing professional obligations.
4. Prepare myself
• Evaluate my physical condition and the accommodations required to sit and write...
Writing a book is not a solo act. You need the support of editors and readers. Launching a book isn’t a solo act, either.
You need a team—a book launch team—to create buzz beyond your immediate circle in the weeks leading up to its release.
Recently, we spoke with book launch manager Kaitlyn Bouchillon, who explained what a book launch team is and how to optimize the reach of your team.
Book Launch Team? Never Heard of It
A book launch team is a group of people who volunteer to support your book’s release. They are your cheerleaders. They are your support team from behind the scenes.
You provide your members with early access to your book, either a digital copy or an ARC (advanced reader copy). This way, your team knows exactly what your book is about—the message, the characters, the storyline. They’re prepared to talk about your book. And share it with the public. Essentially, they market your book before its release date.
Book launch teams are not confined to self-publishers. If you’re working with a traditional publisher, you can request a launch team to work with your marketing team. It is possible to manage your own launch team. Many do to save money.
But, managing a launch team can also be stressful. You’re in charge of securing reviews for your book and encouraging your team members to promote your work—which can be awkward for some people who aren’t used to asking for help. You have to tell them what to post, and when to post. In the weeks leading up to your book launch, this may cause additional stress to your already busy life.
So, what should your launch team do?
Reviews! Reviews! Reviews!
A reader will be interested in your book based on the blurb or cover. They will then read reviews about your book to determine if they should buy it. Reviews are important for you book sales and should be an expected part of your launch team.
Amazon rank books depending on their reviews. If a book receives regularly posted reviews, it will receive a higher ranking. On Goodreads, members can catalog which books they want to read, are currently reading, or have read. If your launch team members catalog your book on Goodreads, your book will gain traction.
Reviews are a staple to a book launch. And a necessity if you want to increase book sales.
Social Media Is Your Greatest Ally
One of the best ways to promote your book is through social media.
These postings range from serious, long posts reserved for personal blogs or Facebook. To fun videos on TikTok, shortened reviews on Instagram, and book cover postings on Twitter and Pinterest.
The buzz on social media will encourage potential readers to check out your book on Amazon or Goodreads. The more traffic for your book, the better!
I Want a Team—Now What?
Your first step is to outline your main goals. Do you want more social media shares? Do you want more book reviews? What do you care about the most? Determining your...