I’m not one of those people who can easily convert their thoughts into writing; instead, I work better with a structured approach to expressing my thoughts and ideas.
I tend to use a list whenever I need to do something, including writing.
What do lists have to do with writing?
When I have to write a piece, once I know what the piece is going to be about, I come up with a list of subtopics I want to discuss. Then, for each subtopic, I determine what I want to discuss: my points.
Once I have my points of discussion, I develop those points into text, which becomes my basic piece. Then, I polish it all up, add any missing parts, and I’m done. (That’s the general idea.)
I didn’t invent this approach, and some of you may use a similar method. I learned it from a course I took—Editing Mastery: How To Edit Writing To Perfection by Shani Raja—that shows editors how to decompose an existing nonfiction piece into manageable points and then rebuild the piece from the ground up.
First, the editor breaks up a piece into its points (the details of the piece), eliminating irrelevant content. Then, the points are grouped into categories. Once the editor has all the information grouped (categories, and points within each category), it’s a matter of putting the categories and points in the order to be presented to the reader.
With my approach, instead of decomposing an existing piece into points (to do a deep edit), I write the points first and then build them into a new piece.
Maybe you’re not a skilled writer, but you have to write something for work. You can use this approach to help you gather your thoughts, expand on them, and present them in an organized, complete way.
And even if you’re an experienced writer, this approach might help you make your writing just a little better.
In either case, you can use this approach to help you write just about any nonfiction piece.
Here’s what I do.
First, I need a topic—what the piece will be about. Once I have a topic in mind for my piece, I go through these steps:
Let’s take a look at the steps in a little more detail. I’ll use an example as I go along.
Let’s assume you already have a topic in mind.
If it’s a topic that you’re familiar with or are expert in, creating a list of ideas to discuss should be fairly simple because you’re already familiar with what you’re going to talk about.
If the topic is something out of your area of expertise, you have to do a little bit of work first. You’ll have to research the topic on the internet (that’s my usual first choice) or through some other source, maybe books or experts in the field.
Let’s go through an exercise. Here’s my example topic along with my chosen subtopics:
I picked something everyone should be familiar with just to keep things simple.
But remember, if you’re going to write about an unfamiliar topic, you’ll have to do research to gain some knowledge about what you’ll be discussing.
Now it’s time to expand the subtopics by associating points of discussion to each subtopic.
These points are everything you think you want to say about each subtopic; the points are the foundation of your piece. Without them, you would just have a bunch of unorganized thoughts—unless you have the ability to spit out well-organized thoughts with little or no effort.
The list of points doesn’t have to be perfect yet. You’ll tweak them as you go along.
These points will be expanded later to become the content of your piece.
Let’s add some points to one of my example subtopics.
Here are the points I want to discuss for the “Paying for Your Expenditures” subtopic:
The points will be refined later, and they’re not necessarily in any order yet.
Once all the points have been listed, it’s time to do some organizing.
But, wait a minute! What if you’re the type of person who has a bunch of thoughts in their head but doesn’t know what to do with them? Just list your thoughts (points) first and then put them into groups of related points, or subtopics, and name the subtopics.
The important thing is that you’re putting related points together (though not necessarily in any logical order).
By this time, you know what you want to discuss: your subtopics and the points within each subtopic.
But if you move too quickly, you’ll be rewriting, and trashing, and rewriting, and … In other words, you’ll never finish writing the piece.
Now you want to organize your information so that you end up with your subtopics in the order in which you want to present them.
And then within each subtopic, you need to put the points in the order in which you want to discuss them within your piece.
The one thing you want to do before you add details to your piece is to make sure your list is final (or what you think is final).
By “final” I mean all the points you want to make are included, and any redundant and extraneous points have been eliminated.
Let’s see what my content looks like after I cleaned up my example piece.
I rearranged subtopics and points in Step 3 above, and I cleaned up (eliminated, added) the points in this step:
Looking at the example, you’ll see that I changed the order for presenting the overall subtopics; “Determining Your Income” is now the first subtopic I want to talk about.
And within “Paying for Your Expenditures,” I rearranged my points, added a point, and eliminated a point.
I now have a well-organized list of subtopics, and within each, I have a well-organized list of points I want to discuss.
Once again, remember that you have to do this for all your subtopics and points.
Once you’ve gotten this far, you have the basic structure of your piece.
Next, you have to expand each point into text that says everything you want to say about that point.
The expanded text for each point could be a sentence or two or even several paragraphs; it’s up to you.
As you’re going along, you might even decide that you need new points or that you need an entirely new subtopic, in which case you would have to fit the new material (subtopics and points) into your existing content.
Let’s expand the point “Using Cash” into text. Here’s what I came up with, a few sentences:
To truly keep track of how much you’re spending monthly, you should use cash to pay for your goods and services.
By using cash, you limit yourself to buying only what you can afford. It’s a control mechanism that keeps you from buying “what feels good” or “what you’ve always wanted.”
Not only does using cash help you control your spending, but also it’s a way to protect your identity, something we’re all concerned about these days.
But what if you need to make a big purchase? Do you carry a barrel full of cash to pay for the purchase? No, this is a case where a debit card …
I have now turned my points into narrative text: my basic goal. This is the content I want to present to the reader.
Your piece would not necessarily look like the example above. Your narrative text really depends on how you present your thoughts, what the content is, what you want to say, and how much you want to say.
The piece has now started taking shape.
Now that you have the basic content of your piece, you want to make sure it has all the elements of a finished piece to make it ready to publish.
Well-written pieces will always have characteristics that make them appealing to the audience and provide intended information. The piece should be informative, factual, clear, enjoyable, easy to read … no matter the style. Make sure you keep these principles in mind when writing your piece; otherwise, the piece will be a failure.
Chances are you want headings in your piece to make it easier to read. This is where the subtopics you defined early in the process can be used to guide you in making section headers. Because you already have your material organized by subtopic, you can easily just use your subtopic names as the section headers of your piece, modifying them as needed.
One thing I’m guilty of is writing pieces without ensuring that the different sections flow nicely from one to the next.
Make sure your sections transition from one to the next (using a transition sentence or two).
You may be thinking “I don’t need it to flow nicely ’cause I’m writing ‘5 Ways to Skip Work.’”
In that case, your high-level subtopics might be each of the “ways” you use to skip work.
You need to have a good introduction to set up the piece.
Keep it light, interesting, perhaps humorous. You may want to use a personal story or an anecdote to give the reader a clue about what you’re going to talk about.
Without a good introduction, your reader will press “Go Back” about three seconds into the piece.
Your closing should summarize the intent of the piece; in other words, wrap it up.
You may want to briefly restate the focus of the piece and ask yourself these questions: Did I make my point? Did I validate my thesis?
You may also want to prompt the reader to take some further action to prove your thesis or to use your suggestions to help them in their daily life or work.
Even after you’ve spent all that time writing what you consider a good piece, you always need to reread it, enhance it, and tighten it up.
And you want to ensure that you’ve done a good proofread to eliminate those pesky problems that could doom your piece before it’s published. Check spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.
Better yet, hire an editor or a proofreader to clean up any remaining issues and errors within the piece.
Once you’ve dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s, then you can sit back and relax.
If you’re new to writing or have a hard time gathering your thoughts, you may want to try this method. It’ll help you write a piece with some structure and organization. It may even turn out to be a pretty good piece.
If you’ve written before, this approach may be something you want to try. It may work for you too.
In any case, you’ll have a chance to produce content that you’ve put thought into: well-organized, complete, and presentable.
Joaquin is a graduate of Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with a degree in Business Administration. He was a software engineer for many years, working mostly for the U.S. government as a contractor. He has always enjoyed the idea of trying to interpret what people are saying, either verbally or in writing and has always been interested in languages. That’s how he found his way into copy editing and proofreading, which he really enjoys. Joaquin is a senior copy editor at CYC.