Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Month: November, 2012

Designing a Story

“Organizing your ideas so that they express a clear and logical story is a design problem.” Architect and Bren School graduate student Ben White showed our Bren writing group how we can design a text by sketching out the parts of a story before we begin to compose — in much the same way that architects spend time on the design phase of a new building before construction.

Here you can see Ben in the design phase of a paper on the business and environmental strategies of a major American company. The goal is to transform the key parts of the discussion and all related details into concrete and ordered segments. You can add things, delete things, move things around, make the connections that work for your explicit purposes.

Our design sketch can be used as a blueprint for the composing process. We can compose any one of the sections or a part of a section when we feel inspired, without having to start at the very beginning of the story and move through to the end. And it is a simple thing to make adjustments to our design if necessary as we learn more about our topic.

Thank you, Ben, for showing us this approach to organizing a text!

Backward Buildup and Writing

In an earlier post I wrote about backward buildup as a way to organize a presentation by starting at the end of your story and working back to the beginning. Backward buildup can also be very useful when organizing a written text. You can use the idea of backward buildup before you have started to compose, or you can use it to refine the organization of an already prepared draft.

Let’s apply the idea of backward buildup to a draft:

1. Story

The most important ingredient of your text is your story. No matter if you are writing a science research paper, a memo, an executive summary, an email, a grant proposal, a job application letter — you must express clearly the ideas you want your reader to understand, think about, be motivated by, be inspired by.

2. Backward Buildup

Organize your story into a logical sequence by starting at the end and working backwards to the beginning. Define subsections, headings, and placement of visuals if appropriate.

Example – A job application letter:

  • Closing
  • Paragraph 4 – Personal qualities and values
  • Paragraph 3 – Work experience
  • Paragraph 2 – Relevant educational background
  • Paragraph 1 – Introduction
  • Date and greeting

3. Fine-tuning

After scrutinizing your text from back to front, look at it in the usual direction — from front to back. This is the time to make sure that you have included all of the elements of your story. Is anything missing? Does the sequencing need to be adjusted? Have you included something that does not add to the story and should be edited out? Add or remove things as necessary, making sure that the story is complete and that the paragraphs and sections have a logical flow.

Looking at our example — As part of his fine-tuning, the writer of the job application letter decided to add more detail to paragraph 3. Because paragraph 3 was now too long and dense, he divided it into two separate paragraphs for clarity and impact. His revised letter has 5 paragraphs instead of 4.

  • New paragraph 3                       Most recent work experience
  • New paragraph 4                       Other relevant work experience

4. Word count and balance

Your text must fit within the word count for the genre you have chosen. You may be given a count (“No more than 2000 words”), or you may decide your own text length (“One page, single spaced — approximately 500-600 words”). Count the words in each paragraph and get a feeling for the average length. Sometimes a longer than average paragraph indicates unnecessary repetition or wordiness. If you find a very long paragraph, you may want to look for a way to divide it into two separate paragraphs to improve balance and readability.

Going back to the job application letter —

The writer chose to fit his text on one page, single-spaced. In order to tell his story most effectively within this length restriction, he made a number of specific choices to calibrate the balance, impact, and formatting of his text. For example, one choice he made was to devote half of the total word count (289 words) to a discussion of his work experience. Another choice was to limit a discussion of his personal qualities to 87 words, leading the reader quickly to the closing.

Example — Final word count – 578 words

  • Closing – 8 words
  • Paragraph 5 – Personal qualities and values – 87 words
  • Paragraph 4 – Other relevant work experience – 132 words
  • Paragraph 3 – Most recent work experience – 157 words
  • Paragraph 2 – Relevant educational background – 122 words
  • Paragraph 1 – Introduction – 56 words
  • Date and greeting – 16 words

Try backward buildup with a sample of your writing-in-progress. I think that standing at the end of your story and looking back to its beginning, especially when you have a working draft, gives you an interesting perspective about the trajectory of the ideas and may reveal alternate and more effective options for their evolution.

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