Two Kinds of Structure to Keep in Mind
When we talk about a structured approach to essay writing, there are two different kinds of structure to keep in mind.
Internal Structure of the Text
On the one hand, there’s the internal structure of the text you’re working on, that is helping to guide the writing process. This is the kind of structure you can display in an outline of some kind.
For example, if I’m writing a short story and I’m consciously trying to present the story within a traditional three-act narrative structure, that’s an example of internal structure that is helping the writer build the story.
A book review will have a different structure, an experimental lab report will have a different structure again. These are examples of structure within the text that helps to define the kind of text it is.
Structure in the Writing Process
Now, when we’re talking about a structured approach to writing, there’s a second kind of structure we need to keep in mind.
This is structure in the writing process itself, in the actual sequence of activities that a writer goes through to take a piece of writing from the idea stage all the way through to a completed final draft.
When you ask a writer about their “writing process”, you’re asking about this kind of structure — the structure in their work habits and thought processes that they use to actually get the work done.
This kind of structure can vary widely between writers, but rest assured, there is a structure there.
People who write a lot develop habits and routines that they rely on to get their work done. And the more that a person writes — and the more productive and efficient they become as a writer — the more structured these habits become.
If you’re looking to improve your writing, my best advice is start paying attention to BOTH kinds of structure — the structure in the text that you’re writing, and the structure in your writing process — because this is what successful writers have mastered that enables them to produce work of consistently high quality in a reasonable amount of time.
An Example of a Structured Approach to Fiction Writing: Three-Act Story Structure
What I want to show you now is an example of a highly structured approach to story structure in fiction writing, just to give you a vivid example of structural outlining that can support a particular writing goal.
My example is an elaboration on a three-act narrative structure that breaks down each the acts into part and subparts. I’m not sure who originated this particular structure I’m going to show you, but it’s widely circulated online. It’s just one of many story structure techniques that you can find if you do a little searching.
At the top level you have ACT I, ACT II and ACT III, where ACT I focuses on SETUP, ACT II on establishing the central CONFLICT of the story, and ACT III focuses on the RESOLUTION of this conflict.
Now, what this particular narrative technique does is it breaks down each of the acts into three parts that replicate the setup-conflict-resolution structure, and then breaks each of those parts into sub-parts that replicate this structure again.
What you’re seeing here is this narrative structure displayed as a hierarchical diagram in a mind-mapping program. In this case I’m using Inspiration 9.
You can see how each act is broken down into three blocks and each block into three sub-units. Each of these final branches corresponds to a chapter in the final book.
So what you end up with is three-level hierarchy that has three acts, three blocks within each act, and three chapters within each block, giving you twenty seven chapters.
A cool feature of this software is that with one click you can view this diagram as a structured outline. If you wanted you could use this as a basis for laying out your chapters in a word processor.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not endorsing this approach to story writing. I’m sure it has its pros and cons.
The obvious pros of replicating the setup-conflict-resolution structure at different levels is that it’s a tried and true technique that promotes audience engagement and maintains narrative momentum at a range of scales within the story.
The obvious con of this kind of structural pre-planning is that it can stifle a more organic style of story development. Stephen King, for example, would never write a novel like this; he’s on record as using a much more open-ended, character-based approach to writing stories.
But I don’t really care about the pros and cons of this particular outlining method. What I want to draw your attention to is how much easier it is to write a novel from start to finish — or any kind of structured document, like an essay, or a thesis chapter, or a journal article or a dissertation — if you have some kind of structural outline in mind. Whether you make it explicit like this or just have a set of structural principles that you’ve internalized that inform your writing choices, it makes it easier to work on the parts when you have some idea of how they contribute to the whole.
How to Implement This Story Structure in Scrivener
Now, let me show you how easy it is to implement this writing workflow in Scrivener, using this example.
Here I’ve opened a new Scrivener document and I’ve recreated this narrative structure outline in the binder, using folders and text documents. The elements of our hierarchy area all here. At this stage, each chapter is given a name based on the narrative function it’s serving in the outline, which helps to remind you what you’re trying to do, narratively, in that chapter.
There’s a good video on YouTube by Kat O’Keefe, who writes fantasy fiction using this method, and she walks through her outlining process from start to finish in Scrivener. So if you’re interested I recommend searching for Katytastic on YouTube, which is her channel name, or if you search for “outlining with Scrivener” her video shows up pretty high on the search results.
So, this is an example of how you can use outlining to help you work through a longer writing project by focusing attention on structural features of the final draft that you’re aiming for, and how tools like Scrivener can make it easy to switch your attention between these structural aspects of your writing project and the actual draft text that you’re writing.
Structure in the Writing Process: Writing Rituals
I want to return now to the second kind of structure that I mentioned at the outset — structure in the writing process itself, what you actually go through to get the writing job done.
All writers — fiction and non-fiction writers — develop rituals that help them with this task.
Some write only in the morning, some only at night.
Some write only in coffee shops with lots of background noise. Some write at a desk at their home or at work with very specific background music playing.
Some begin their writing using paper notebooks and eventually switch to a word processor at some point.
Some only write on a laptop. Some unplug from the internet and mute their cell phones to avoid distraction.
Some need to smoke or drink coffee while they write. Some write for particular blocks of time. Some don’t stop until they’ve hit a certain number of words.
These rituals are important, because there are always points where your writing becomes painful, and you need to cultivate a mindset and a set of habits that can help you push through those difficult periods.
That’s what the rituals do. They help you manage pain points, and they help you to make steady progress toward your writing goal.
Writers who have less experience, and this includes most students in high school or college, often have no rituals to support their writing. They only write occasionally, when they’re forced to for a class assignment, so they don’t have any writing habits to speak of that might help them plan ahead, manage their time and work through pain points.
Unfortunately there’s no easy, single piece of advice to give on this topic, since everyone’s process is different and you need to experiment to see what sort of rituals work for you. And if you don’t write very often, then you have very little to experiment with, so it’s tricky to see how to get started.
How Structure in the Text Can Support Structure in Your Writing Process
This is partly why I’m interested in structured approaches to essay writing — and by ‘structure’ I mean the first kind of structure we’ve been talking about here, the structure within the text.
In my experience, the more a student knows about essay structure — about what their final product is supposed to look like, from a structural perspective — the easier it is to start writing and maintain a productive writing routine.
In other words, the first kind of structure helps to cultivate the second kind of structure.
Why? Because having a good sense of structure helps you break down the writing task into manageable chunks. It helps you feel confident that the smaller tasks are contributing to the overall goal. And at any stage of the writing process it helps you answer a very important question — “what do I do next?”.
But for this to work effectively for essay writing, in my opinion you need to brainstorm the structure and give it a tangible external representation, so that you’re not relying solely on your memory to know where you are and what to do next.
t’s an enormous cognitive load to keep it all in your head. The more you can get the structural parts out of your head and down on paper or in an outline of some kind, the more room it frees up for creative thinking on other tasks.
And I think the same holds true for managing and implementing the writing process itself. An outline can be used to organize the structure of a text, but it can also be used to organize the tasks you need to complete to finish your writing project.
The more that you can externalize those tasks — by making task lists, or writing down a project timeline, or adding reminders to your calendar , or whatever — the easier it is to use and follow, because it reduces the cognitive load on your memory and gives you concrete guidance on what to do during each stage of the writing process, and what your next task should be.
An external task list can also be a useful reality check — they can make it much harder to deceive yourself by thinking you have more time than you actually do to finish your project, or that you’ve made more progress than you actually have.
For all these reasons, I think it’s really helpful to have a writing system that helps you manage not only the structural features of your writing, but also the timeline and task management elements of the writing process.
In the next video I’ll give you a quick tour of an essay writing template in Scrivener that is designed to help manage both of these aspects of the writing process.