All writers struggle with structure. Finding the best organization for an argument—whether you’re working on an article, a conference paper, a dissertation chapter, a book chapter, or a massive project like your first academic book—is one of the most difficult tasks an author can face.
Structure is a pernicious issue in both the writing and editing stages of academic work. Typically, problems with the overall organization of your text only become clearly visible once you’ve drafted enough of something to realize that it might be a hot mess. The problem of finding your structure can feel depressing and unwieldy precisely because it often seems impossible to fix without starting over from scratch. Since writing is thinking, by the end of your first draft, you most likely already have something that contains most of the pieces you’ll need to craft a really great piece of work. But how do you discover the best possible arrangement for those pieces?
The secret is to take a step back from the granular level. Stop rereading and rewriting individual segments—that won’t help you very much at this stage. What you need to do is to get some perspective on your argument and the narrative as a whole. To do that effectively, you’re going to have to go back to basics.
The good news is: Finding your structure can actually be one of the most fun and rewarding parts of writing. No, really, I mean it. If you can let go of the need for something to be perfect or brilliant or amazing on the first or second draft and also learn to let go of how you first envisioned the flow of the text, you’ll probably end up with a stronger, better-crafted piece of writing.
Here are some of the strategies that I recommend when my dissertation writers get stuck on a particularly difficult chapter. Even if you think these suggestions sound too “simplistic” for advanced academic work—or, as one of my advisees once opined, you think they are reminiscent of kindergarten crafts—try them out anyway. Play can be a good thing when you’re struggling with your writing. And you might be surprised by the results.
Strategy One: Reverse outlining. Print out the entire draft of your text and break out your red pen. In the margins, jot down each paragraph’s main idea. If it has more than one, flag it. If it doesn’t seem to have a concrete purpose, flag that, too.
Once you’re finished, look at the “outline” of the piece. Get rid of paragraphs that don’t “fit” the argument you’re making. Split up paragraphs that are trying to do too many things at once. Notice how many paragraphs are descriptive or analytic; you may notice that you have far more theory or evidence for one section of your piece than for the others. The point of the reverse outline is to help you spot all the gaps in your thinking, the problems with the development of your main thesis, your overall organization, any messy paragraphs, and poor transitions between ideas. Constructing a reverse outline will highlight the mechanics of your text and force you to focus on the “big picture” without getting lost in all the details.
If reverse outlining doesn’t do the trick, and you find yourself frustrated and still wrangling with a longer, data-rich piece of writing, I strongly recommend …
Strategy Two: The “Humpty Dumpty Method.” This is where frustration gets fun. If you’ve written a 60-page chapter, this one is especially for you. (Hint: Chapters really, really shouldn’t be that long. A 60-page chapter usually indicates that you’re trying to do too much, and that you actually have two or three different arguments smashed together.)
The Humpty Dumpty Method requires a full printout of your text. It also requires a large, flat space—either a conference room table or a floor will do. Step one: Take a pair of scissors and cut your text up into individual paragraphs. I’m serious. Step two: Throw them around. Mess them up. Step three: Now try to put them back together again. If you can’t do this easily, either your original argument isn’t strong enough or the original structure really isn’t working.
This method allows you to see how the pieces of your argument are or are not “connecting” to each other in a logical, coherent fashion. It also allows you to “cut and paste” away from the computer screen, freeing you to play with the order of sections or paragraphs without committing to anything. Does this work better here or there? Move it. See if it “fits” better somewhere else.
Step four: Once you’re certain that paragraphs are in the right order, start taping them back together again. This allows you to visualize the concrete sections of your thesis. Then you can move entire parts of your argument around to see if they “flow” better in a new order. This strategy is fun and freeing and can help you to visualize your structure in new ways.
Visualization off the computer screen is important. When I asked him for his own strategies, Ryan Sloan, a novelist and seasoned writing lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, reminded me that it’s important to think about structure before writing, as well as after completing the first draft. “It can be tough to visualize your own arguments when you have so much material, each with its own voice,” Sloan said. “The advice I give my students: Avoid the computer and the dreaded first page before drafting. Instead, buy some sticky notes and grab a whiteboard.”
Ryan Sloan’s Strategy Three: Use big, colored sticky notes and colored markers as you research. Keep track of your evidence as you go: analysis, source, and concepts or categories. Before or after you write (depending on if you’re writing or revising), pull out all the notes and get yourself to a smooth wall or whiteboard. Arrange and rearrange the material in clusters. The whiteboard allows you to draw relationships and note reflections or questions. Sloan recommends that you “take a picture with your phone to save a record, erase, and start again.” This approach allows you to “see” the best structure for your argument emerge right in front of you.
I also asked Pushcart Prize-winning author and writing coach Steve Adams for his sage advice on this issue. Echoing some of the points above, he also reminds his students that all pieces of writing—even academic texts—have a story arc. He has students “draw out their story arc on long pieces of white paper that they can then hang onto their wall so they can get a sense of the whole shape of the piece.”
Steve Adams’s Strategy Four: Write a sentence or two describing the main arguments in a chapter, or just the gist of the information it contains, and move the pieces around to see how they might be most meaningful. Then put your chapter (or book) in that sequence and give it a read-through. If it’s not perfect (and it won’t be), go through the process again. Adams admits, “I had to do that four times with my last novel.”
Finally, both Sloan and Adams concur that experimentation is important to the overall revision process. Writing is messy. “Like you, I encourage my students to play,” Adams told me. “And to make a mess. And to not attempt perfection or brilliance. It won’t be brilliant. It can’t be. Brilliance comes from coming back to the draft you’ve coughed up, solving problems that you couldn’t even see the first time through, making pass after pass.”
Every writer—at every level—struggles with finding structure. When you’re exasperated or exhausted, try breaking out your craft supplies and have some fun.