How to write it right: exercises focused on structure and function

Paper apple with paperclip

Paper apple with paperclipWhat sort of information is central to your message?

I set you a task at the end of my last post to test your writing skills by taking my Paperclip challenge.

The task there was to write a description of a paperclip allowing someone who has never seen one to identify it immediately. You might consider completing the Paperclip Challenge before you read the rest of this article.

Identifying your core information

I’ve come across a number of product adverts and sites that chatter on endlessly about what a product will do, but they rarely move beyond function, failing at telling me just what it is they want me to buy.

Consider an advert for a super-duper, newly-developed, state-of-the-art tool that will allow you to landscape your garden to a professional finish.

Do you actually know what will be delivered to your front door? Will it resembles a garden spade or a JCB digger? Missing out on that crucial bit of information – the actual structure – could impact the seller’s credibility when the customer receives a totally unexpected piece of kit, even if, in the right environment, it is completely fit for purpose.

Back to the humble paperclip. Let’s look more closely at the sort of information that needs to go into the description, bearing in mind both structure and function.

Here are some examples of the questions you should be asking:

Function and structure

  • What is its function/purpose?
  • What is it made of?
  • What shape is it?
  • How big is it?

Did you include any of the following in your paperclip description?

  • Its function is to allow you to secure a few sheets of paper together in a non-permanent way. It can easily be removed with no damage to the paper.
  • it is reusable.
  • It is typically 1-2 inches long.
  • It is made of fine gauge wire bent into a flat, elongated spiral.
  • It is slightly flexible which allows it to be easily slid on and off the edge of a sheet of paper.

Building on the basics – making it concise

Blaise Pascal wrote in 1657, “I have made this [letter] longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

cartoon of someone writing: writing concisely is not easyWriting in a concise and considered way takes a great deal more time and effort than doing a brain-dump of all your ideas into a page of text.

I used the Paperclip challenge to illustrate how to identify the essential pieces of information that need to be included in a description.

Before you start writing anything, spend some time on the straightforward type of analysis of structure and function, described above.

Consider making a list of the questions that your writing needs to address. As far as possible, put yourself in the readers’ shoes so you can better anticipate the information they will want to receive.

Once you have determined what is essential, start thinking about how to build on that framework. You need to be concise, accurate, and informative, all while making it easy to read and understand.

Exercise – Keeping your writing trim

In the exercise below, the passage contains plenty of information. Work through the text, which has a word count of over 230, and see if you can edit it down to below 200 words without losing any core content and at the same time ensuring that it is easy to read.

Things to look out for as you work through it:

  • avoiding repetition
  • using several words when one will do
  • avoiding ‘hard’ words when simple ones will do
  • considering paragraph length (in UK newspaper journalism, typically a paragraph never contains more than 2 sentences)
  • thinking about whether the passage might be improved by completely rewriting or restructuring parts of it.

This band, The Rhodies, is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated bands on the international touring circuit. The trio comprises Mr JJ Smith, vocals and keyboards, Annie Blinks, fiddle, and Stevie Later, whistles and Uilleann pipes. They were all born and raised in Glasgow, and it was there that they met in the local 'Sunset Folk Club' and after that, everything is history.

They exhibit superb qualities of the Glasgow folk music tradition, their renditions of melodies on traditional instruments are applauded, but they also provide rhythmic and harmonic styles that are also able to meet the demands of the contemporary music world as well. Since their inception in 2001, when the band was formed, they have produced performances and recordings of dazzlingly high quality.

They had a sell-out concert last Christmas at the RUR Concert Bowl, and with the live album that was recorded there, they have gone from strength to strength, and are widely celebrated for their fusion of traditional and contemporary style, all of which has added to the popularity of this acclaimed band.

You are now able to get tickets for their next Christmas concert, for 2013, by going to the Rhodies’ website which will feature songs from their new CD ‘Winter Mornings' which they released last month, recorded on their own label. You can also buy online all their earlier CDs, including “Songs for a summer” and “Roadster”.

In my next article, I will draw up a reference list of some of the common, but easily avoidable, grammatical mistakes that can spoil your writing, and give some hints to help you avoid them.

ticktocksocialHow to write it right: exercises focused on structure and function

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