August 19, 2017

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.

Avoid flabby middles

Build a better body Avoid ‘the muddle in the middle’ when you create a solid structure for the body of your piece. Image by Vincent Brassinne

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.

  • Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid

    Our old friend the inverted pyramid hasn’t fared well in recent research.

    According to new studies by such think tanks as The Readership Institute and The Poynter Institute, inverted pyramids: 1) Reduce readership and understanding; 2) Fail to make readers care about the information; and 3) Don’t draw readers across the jump. In short, researchers say, inverted pyramids “do not work well with readers.”

    Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Kansas City on Nov. 16-17, 2017 imageAt Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on Nov. 16-17 in Kansas City — you’ll learn a structure that can increase readership, understanding and satisfaction with your message. Specifically, you’ll learn:

    • How to organize your message to grab readers’ attention, keep it for the long haul and leave a lasting impression.
    • Three elements of a great lead — and five leads to avoid.
    • How to stop bewildering your readers by leaving out an essential paragraph. (Many communicators forget it).
    • Five ways to avoid the “muddle in the middle”.
    • A three-step test for ending with a bang.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Kansas City on Nov. 16-17, 2017

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Catch Your Readers workshop? Contact Ann directly.


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