Writing with Structure

Imitating excellent art isn’t complicated it you know what to look for–and it’s not plagiarism if you are using your own unique content.

Have you ever ready a brilliant essay or a short story that really packed a punch and wondered how the author had arranged the words in such a pleasing, powerful way?

I recently discovered there is a way to learn the structure and model my own work after another’s success.  In The Writer’s Portable Mentor Priscilla Long (a local Seattle author) explains the means by which we can model our writing after a piece we seek to emulate.

I’m going to use a themed essay as an example, and then I will translate this to a real life example I used in my freelance work.

Let’s say you just read a fabulous essay on Arab-Americans living in the United States and you have an essay on swing dancers that you’ve been wanting to write for a while.  You decide to use the Arab-American article as a template to form a structure for your dance essay.

Note: the topics are very different.  You should make sure that when you pick a template, it’s not too close to what you plan to write about or you might accidentally borrow something from your example (and that would be venturing into plagiarism territory).

How many paragraphs are there in your template?  Count them.  Now write a list of one-sentence descriptions that summarize the message of each paragraph in the template.  Now–here’s where it gets fun–translate those descriptions, paragraph by paragraph into messages that you would use to write your swing dance essay.

Here’s an example: The Arab-American article has a paragraph about what brought the Arab-Americans’ ancestors to the U.S. You would take your equivalent dance paragraph and write about what or who originally introduced your dancers to swing dancing.  Can you see how this becomes an entirely different article while still modeling the form?

The Basics:

  1. Count the paragraphs  in the template and mimic the number precisely in your essay.
  2. Translate the message of paragraphs in the template into summary sentences.
  3. Create summary sentences for your own paragraphs in your own essay.
  4. Flesh out the paragraphs in your own essay using the summary sentences as guides.
  5. Only once you’ve done steps 1-4, then you can begin editing, and if paragraphs demand to be broken into shorter ones or condensed into larger ones, you can do this.

And now for a real life example:

I was recently hired to write copy for a graphic designer’s website.  The designer had seen another website whose copy she really liked and wanted to imitate.  Aha, thought I, The perfect opportunity to write into a structure. 

My first step was to study the website as a template for my work.  It was a biography “About” page.  I made summary sentences to describe each paragraph of the template  (i.e. paragraph 1: How I began designing, paragraph 2: My particular design interests, paragraph 3: My professional experience, paragraph 4: Fun things about me).

Once I had paragraph summaries, I converted these to questions and interviewed my client over the phone.  I was then able to take the fresh, unique content about my client and write an “About” page that was completely individual to her, but still had the shape and “feel” of the page my client had liked so much.

This concept works for stories and collages, too.  If at all possible, it’s important to read aloud the template you’re studying in order to fully observe and absorb the structure you’re planning to borrow.

This post is a paraphrase of the actual exercise from the book.  I highly recommend getting yourself your own copy.  To quote my writing friend, Scott, this book is worth its weight in gold.

Take this as an assignment and let me know what happens.  Have fun!


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