Structure your message like Tom Wolfe, William Faulkner — and me
When William Faulkner couldn’t figure out how to structure A Fable, he wrote a simple outline — directly onto the wall of his writing sanctuary.
A Fable won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize. Hmmmm … maybe Faulkner was on to something.
You needn’t write on the walls. But you do need to outline. Mind mapping works. Even bullet points on the back of an envelope can help you resolve structural flaws, avoid awkward transitions and write to your word count. (I call this editing before you write.)
“In order to write something big, it really helps me to think of the constituent parts. What are the basic units or elements? What are the chapters? That helps with my research — filling up my chapter files. And it helps with my drafting — writing one chapter at a time.”
— Roy Peter Clark, author, How to Write Short
Whether you’re a fiction writer producing creative writing, a short story writer responding to writing prompts or a corporate communicator cranking out a news release or intranet article, you’re going to need to organize writing projects.
Here’s how five other writers have figured out what goes where — a key step of the writing process:
1. Tom Wolfe outlined.
“I make a very tight outline of everything I write before I write it,” said the author of The Right Stuff.
“By writing an outline you really are writing in a way, because you’re creating the structure of what you’re going to do. Once I really know what I’m going to write, I don’t find the actual writing takes all that long.”
2. Chip Scanlan “collages.”
“Don’t get stuck in linearity,” writes the affiliate faculty member of The Poynter Institute. Instead, he writes in segments, then “collages” the paragraphs and pages together into a whole.
3. Donald M. Murray used Post-its.
“I use a yellow highlighter and Post-it notes,” wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist.
“Since I’m not comfortable using split screens and electronic files to write from, I make a printout of every interview, staple the pages, and spread them out on my desk. I separate the stacks with Post-it notes: pro sources, anti sources, the experts, etcetera.”
4. Vladimir Nabokov used index cards.
Nabokov wrote most of his novels on 3-by-5 cards, keeping blank cards under his pillow for whenever inspiration struck.
5. Ann Wylie uses buckets.
Once you’ve researched your story, it’s time to organize your notes. Here’s how I do it, step-by-step.
“Organization is what you do before you do it, so when you do it, it’s not all messed up.”
— Winnie The Pooh
1. Put your info in buckets. As you gather and organize information, think of your material as “buckets” of like information. Depending on the scope of the project, your buckets might be physical file folders, files on your laptop, Word documents, even bookmarked sections within a Word doc.
For a marketing brochure, for instance, you might have buckets on how the product helps customers:
- Save money
- Make money
- Save time
Each bucket becomes its own section in the body of the piece.
3. Label your buckets. Make each section easy to find by placing a meaningful subhead before:
If you have three points, you’ll have four subheads — one for each section of the body, and one to divide the body from the conclusion.
That will help you make your thinking visual and your structure clear.
How to organize writing projects
“Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.”
— Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize-winning novelist
Whether you’re writing on the walls or using Google Drive, a lot of times, organizing your writing projects is the hardest part of the writing process. Use these techniques to make the process better, easier and faster.
How do you organize your writing projects?