There is one essential rule in writing an essay or article. Separate content from form. They are two entirely different things, and should be worked on separately.
Content is what you want to say. Form is the organization of what you want to say. Let’s say you start writing without much planning. Typically, the things you want to say will swirl around in your head with the structure and style that you hope to achieve. Now you’re trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. That can be exhausting.
Trying to deal with form and content simultaneously almost guarantees false starts. There is a better way. First, settle on the content. Then deal with form.
Think about what you want to say. Write this down in a sentence or two. In Hollywood they call this the pitch. Just as skyscrapers can first be designed in a small sketch on a napkin, major creative projects and business deals are often launched by a short statement. Surely if the big shots can do it, you can sum up your paper in twenty-five words or less. Preferably ten. This tactic will come in handy for the rest of your career.
If you’ve got time, carry this statement around with you for a day. Read it over and over. Is this precisely what you intend to say? Don’t move past this step until you can answer “”yes.””
Now expand the statement into the ten or twenty points that you want to cover. Put them down in any order. A “”point”” can be any separate thought, large or small. Let’s say a point is “”describe the room.”” Later, that phrase may become many paragraphs. “”Describe the room”” perfectly captures what the point consists of.
Again, carry this list around for a day if possible. You want to be satisfied that this list of points is complete. Everything you intend to say is right there on that piece of paper.
Congratulations, you have defined the content of your article.
When you are comfortable with the list, then you focus on the sequence. Read back and forth over the list. Try to identify the point you would like to start with and label that A. What would be the next most logical (or emotional) point? Label that B. Continue until every point has a letter. Now read the points in the new sequence. How does that sound?
If it sounds perfect or almost, rearrange all the points in the new sequence, A to whatever. You now have both the form and organization of your article.
Again, if there’s time, do something else for a day or two. Or show this outline to a friend. You want to gain a little distance on what you’ve done. When you can read through this outline and declare, “”That’s what I want to say; and that’s the order I want to say it in,”” then you are ready to write your article.
The procedure described so far might add an extra hour to the beginning of a project but will often save several hours later on. Everyone who has written even a few articles knows it’s possible to get halfway in and realize that you haven’t started at the right point; or you left out a chunk of the presentation; or that the big point you thought you wanted to make isn’t the big point you really want to make.
Be smart. First determine all the points you want to cover. Then determine the best arrangement of those points.
Adapted from The One Big Rule for Writing an Article by Bruce D. Price, 2013
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