Magnetic Writing: Revising for Organization
It’s easy to say, “Good writing needs strong organization.” But if you don’t already know how to do such at thing, that’s not a very helpful comment. So what does it mean to reorganize your writing? I’ve talked about organization before in terms of planning what comes first or last, but this time I’m going to talk about revising an existing piece to improve the logical “flow.”
Back when I was an English teacher, I had a colleague who gritted her teeth at the haphazard way students threw the term “flow” about in their writing analysis. They knew it was a good thing to have. But when it came to actually describing how a writer could create “flow”. . . crickets. "Flow," "organization": these are such abstract terms.
I’m going to try to put a bit of a finer point on this concept using a metaphor about magnets.
Think about your writing as magnetic. Magnets work because of directional magnetic fields, which align along the magnet's north/south poles. A phrase like “opposites attract” references this fact but misses the point. It isn’t that the opposite poles of two magnets are particularly drawn to one another—it’s that they are pulling in the same direction. The magnetic force enters from the south pole and exits by the north. The south poles of a pair of magnets have no problem with one another, as it were; they’re just heading in opposite directions. But line up a north pole with a south pole, and they snap into place with a satisfying click.
Writing also has a direction—a magnetic field, if you will—that moves the reader’s attention along with it.
Consider the sentence:
The proposal to observe Daylight Saving Time throughout the year, although lauded by the Chamber of Commerce, alarmed student advocacy groups concerned about children walking to school on dark winter mornings.
This sentence starts us with the proposal itself and then moves us through two responses, one positive and one negative, and the reason for the negative response. Ideally, the next sentence will pick up on that forward motion and move us in the same direction, perhaps elaborating on the concerns or describing how these concerns were expressed. The next sentence shouldn’t go back and give a history of Daylight Saving Time—that would push against the direction of the writing.
Examining a piece of writing for its magnetic push and pull can also help highlight redundancies. Each new sentence or paragraph or section or chapter should pick up where the last one left off and move the reader into new territory.
Note: This doesn’t mean that you can’t jump around chronologically. Forward motion often has more to do with a cohesive thought process than a timeline. Flashbacks or little history lessons partway through can complicate an idea or an emotion or give context for what comes next. That’s still forward motion.
As you are revising your work, look for sections that accomplish more or less the same movement, taking the reader over the same ground twice. Put those sentences side-by-side to examine them. It's one thing if you're going deeper or adding nuance, but once you’ve taken a step forward, but can’t go backward, so either combine those sentences or pare the repetition away.
Tip: If you find yourself saying, “As noted above,” you might be stepping backward.
The magnetic direction of your writing is all about the relationships between ideas. This is true of fiction and nonfiction alike. In a story, the main idea generally centers on a protagonist, and that focus gives us our direction:
Here is a little boy >> this little boy is very mischievous >> his mischief makes him disrupt a sacred ceremony >> this disruption catches the attention of a demon >> the demon kidnaps the boy >> the kidnapped boy pranks the demon >> the demon is defeated by the boy’s pranks >> thus, the naughty boy becomes a hero.
Although the result looks very different, the same principle holds for nonfiction writing. In an op-ed, the author is similarly bound to move the reader forward by creating relationships between ideas:
Teenagers make important contributions to society >> for example, they hold jobs, care for family members, create art, purchase goods, etc. >> however, teenagers under the age of 18 are denied the right to vote >> voting rights are essential to people’s ability to determine their lives and futures >> the lives and futures of today’s teenagers are bound up in policy decisions made by elected officials on important issues >> for example, climate change, student debt, healthcare >> therefore, as contributing members of society with a great deal at stake, teenagers deserve the right to vote.
Once you know how your ideas link together—how the magnetic force travels from one to another—you need to be sure your reader knows it, too.
You do that by including appropriate transitions in your writing. Transitions name the relationship between ideas explicitly. Transitions can be overdone and graceless, but a few well-placed transitions, especially between major ideas, keeps your reader clear about how your magnetic poles line up.
There are different kinds of transitions for different kinds of relationships. Look through the list below to get yourself thinking about how to communicate the “flow” of your writing to your reader. (Obviously, formal transitions like these are much more common in nonfiction writing such as essays, speeches, or academic papers, but they do appear in narrative prose as well from time to time.)
Transitions (a non-exhaustive list):
But, However, On the other hand
Tip: Once you make the shift, commit to it. Avoid hopping back and forth too much with repeated oppositions.
Similarly, Likewise, Along those same lines
Tip: Comparisons must be more than decorative. What does it matter that these two things are alike?
Moreover, Furthermore, Not only X but Y
Tip: Be sure that you aren’t just repeating yourself. Does the sentence that follows add more detail that the reader needs to move on to the next step?
In particular, One key element, Specifically
Tip: Use this technique for something that is very complicated or especially important because it will slow down forward progress in favor of depth.
At that point, Then, Before any of this, Meanwhile
Tip: If you do jump backwards or sideways in time, there should be a reason for it. Perhaps you want your reader to form an opinion of an event before you give them the whole backstory.
As a result, Thus, Therefore
Tip: This is one of the clearest magnetic connections you can have. Just be sure your evidence supports the causal relationship.
For this reason, Significantly, This means
Tip: Your analysis has a legitimate place in the flow of your argument. They shouldn't be treated as an aside but as part of the "flow."
So what does all this mean? In conclusion, In the end
Tip: Give an overview of where we’ve been and where these ideas might go after this, but the conclusion isn’t the place to start pulling in a new direction.
When you are revising your work for the sake of organization, stay sensitive to the push and pull of your ideas. It can help, sometimes, to force a new perspective on the piece. If you are a tactile learner, print out your writing and literally cut and paste it into a new arrangement. If you are an auditory learner, read the whole thing out loud and listen for the parts where you feel like you’re repeating yourself or contradicting yourself or talking in circles.
With patience and attention, you should be able to revise your way to clear and cohesive organization. Sometimes, of course, a fresh set of eyes can help. Reach out to a friend, peer, or editor to help you get your magnets aligned.