Avoid flabby middles
Five ways to shape the body of your message
My favorite scene in the movie “High Fidelity” is when Rob Gordon (John Cusack) becomes so depressed over his failed love life that he seeks solace in reorganizing his albums.
His nerdy pal Dick (Todd Louiso) is curious about the project. “Are you going to file them alphabetically?” Dick asks.
Nope, Rob answers.
“Chronologically?” Dick presses.
Nope, Rob replies.
“Not …” Dick gasps.
“Yep,” Rob says. “Autobiographically.”
Then he’ll have to remember, say, whom he was dating when he first heard Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” to find the album.
When it comes to music, the right organizing structure can help you navigate your collection more efficiently. The same thing’s true with organizing the body of your story: The more appropriate the structural concept, the easier it is for your readers to make their way through your copy.
Strengthen your core.
The body of the story includes one or more sections in which you explore the subject of the story in more detail. If the nut graph is where you tell readers what you’re going to tell them, the body is where you tell them.
Too often, writers understand the importance of strong beginnings and strong endings. But they simply throw all their other material into the body of their piece.
I call the result “the muddle in the middle” — a big blob of information in no particular order.
Five ways to whip your body into shape
The best organizing principle for your piece depends on your topic. In designing the shape of your copy, as in designing so many things, form should follow function.
People don’t drive alphabetically, points out Richard Saul Wurman, author of Information Architects. Why, then, are atlases organized that way?
To avoid the muddle in the middle, figure out how your readers would really use your information. Then choose one of these five organizing principles to whip your body into shape.
Wurman uses the acronym LATCH to demonstrate how to organize information. “There are only five ways to do it,” he says. They are:
- Location. Move geographically — city to city, state to state or country to country, for instance.
- Alphabet. Organize from A to Z.
- Theme. Tackle your topic categorically.
- Chronology. Progress from beginning to middle to end.
- Hierarchy. Structure from most important to least.
So choose the approach that makes the most sense for your topic — and your readers. And don’t produce an atlas that’s arranged from A to Z.
Five is all it takes.
I have yet to find a type of story that doesn’t fit into one of these five organizing schemes.
- Q&As, for instance, should be organized thematically. If you’re organizing yours chronologically, using the structure of the interview, think again!
- How-to articles, aka service pieces, generally run from first step to last. In other words, they’re chronological.
- Lists are usually organized hierarchically, thematically or chronologically.
So if you master these five structural principles, you’ll have all the tools you need to organize any story.
And note: “Autobiographically” is not on the list.