How to Improve Your Writing Skills by Analyzing Structure

How to Improve Your Writing Skills by Analyzing Structure

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You know that writers need to read to improve their writing skills. All the experts say so.

And they’re right. But reading doesn’t just mean curling up with a great book or surfing your favourite blogs on your coffee breaks. It means finding out exactly what other writers do. It means discovering what works – and what falls flat.

You can’t just point and say I liked this post but not this one. If you want to improve your skills as a writer, you need to be able to figure out why you liked this or that – and what made it work.

So let me show you how to be a better writer, starting with structure.

Getting a Grip on Structure

Some blog posts, sales pages and ebooks just work. You get absorbed in them. You never get lost or have to read a paragraph twice. Once you’ve finished, you feel like you’ve learned something (yes, even with a sales page).

How do the writers do it? Great structure.

You can take a piece of writing – however long or short – and figure out the underlying structure. I’ll take you step-by-step through a couple of examples: one blog post and one ebook.

First Example: How to Turn Your Blog Traffic into Money (blog post)

Take a look at How to Turn Your Blog Traffic into Money by Darren Rowse.

The purpose of the post is to recommend Premise, but the structure isn’t that of a typical review or recommendation. This is how it breaks down:

  • Introduction
  • First section, called “The cornerstone of my new approach”, where Darren explains a landing page and why it’s important
  • Second section, called “Specifically designed landing pages work better”. Having introduced the idea of a landing page, Darren goes through a brief story about what he did wrong in the past and what he’s doing right now
  • Third section, which is the first place where Darren mentions Premise. He explains what it does, talking about benefits (“It takes the ‘too hard’ part of landing pages and completely eliminates it”) and features.
  • Call to action: The affiliate link to Premise in the final paragraph.

Normally, reviews and recommendations follow a predictable format. They’ll mention the product name in the title of the post (which helps for SEO) and in the introduction. An affiliate link appears near the top. The post focuses on the product and what it does.

Darren takes a very different route here. That’s partly because he’s pretty much the antithesis of a hard-sales guy – but also because there are tactical reasons to structure the post like this.

Let’s take a closer look:

#1: The post is framed to draw us in. If you don’t know what a landing page is or why it’s important, then a title like “Create Easy, Effective Landing Pages With Premise” simply won’t work. But “How to Turn Your Blog Traffic into Money” makes the benefits completely clear.

#2: We learn what a landing page is. The first section is useful, informative, and has a persuasive function. It doesn’t just give a dictionary definition of a landing page – it also spells out a number of great uses for landing pages, making us think, “Hmm, maybe I should do that…”

#3: The mention of Premise comes when we’re ready. Once we really understand why landing pages are so important, we’re presented with a solution: a piece of software that takes care of all the hard work.

This is also the first point at which an image comes into the post, automatically drawing our eye and marking this section as important.

Using Darren’s Structure

If you liked this structure, you could:

  • Create a review that starts off by explaining why the reader needs your solution – before you even name or present the product/service.
  • Write your review so that it’s useful by giving valuable information – as Darren does in the first couple of sections.
  • Make sure there’s a clear call to action in the very last paragraph of your review.

What if this structure didn’t work for you? That’s okay too. Figure out why you didn’t like it:

  • Perhaps you felt a bit cheated by the title: You were expecting a big, comprehensive post about making money through blogging, and this turned out to be about landing pages.
  • You might have felt tricked into a sales pitch, since the mention of Premise doesn’t come until the end.

It’s fine to dislike a post, but don’t use that as a reason to stop reading. Use it as a chance to figure out why some things don’t work for you and why they might not work for your audience.

Second Example: 5 Big Mistakes Creative People Make With Money (ebook)

I’ve chosen 5 Big Mistakes Creative People Make With Money by Mark McGuinness as the second example.

It’s available for free download (you don’t even need to put in your email address), and it has an unusual and innovative structure. This is how it breaks down:

  • Cover page
  • Copyright note and information about sharing the ebook
  • A one-page introduction that sets us up for what’s to come – “[a] story about two creative people and their relationship with money (and other things)”
  • A short story told mainly in dialogue format through two main characters – Oscar and Jay. This is split into six scenes in chronological order, each headed with a different year and location and takes up 24 pages.
  • A section that explains the story and lists five money mistakes (the ones referred to in the title), using Oscar and Jay’s story to show how these mistakes affected Oscar. Each mistake is covered in one page, making this section 7 pages in total.
  • A one-page introduction to a free seminar as the conclusion to the ebook.

This isn’t what you’d normally expect from a non-fiction ebook. When I opened it up, I wasn’t expecting such a long story (nor one told mainly in dialogue). I had to read more slowly than I normally would, and I found myself caring about the characters … and starting to think about some of the mistakes that I’ve made in my own creative business.

Why does this ebook structure work?

#1: It’s creative – which is especially important, as the ebook is squarely aimed at creative people. But stories work on all of us. That’s why bloggers often open a post with an anecdote – sometimes starting in the middle of a story to heighten the pull.

#2: We’re told what to expect. The introduction sets up the story. In fact, before you even get that far, the cover hints at the story with a drawing of two creative-looking types, a man and a woman.

#3: The structure is deliberately crafted. In the short story section, every new scene is titled with the location and year. The scene begins with a paragraph or two of description before moving into dialogue. (Sometimes the dialogue is face-to-face, sometimes on the phone, sometimes text chat – but the underlying structure remains constant.)

In the short section on the 5 money mistakes, each mistake takes up a page. That might seem like a purely cosmetic point, but it’s part of the structure. If one mistake took up three pages and another took up half a page, the ebook would feel poorly balanced.

Using Mark’s Structure

If you liked this structure, you could:

  • Write an ebook in two distinct parts, breaking each part into short, easy-to-read sections
  • Use a case study or a fictional story to illustrate your topic before going on to explain in more detail
  • Make all your points in a list the same length: one page of your ebook, for instance, or two paragraphs of your blog post.

Now, maybe you didn’t like the way Mark wrote this ebook. I’d encourage you to read it anyway so that you can figure out what exactly wasn’t right for you. For instance:

  • Was the story too long? Perhaps 4 pages would have been fine, but 24 pages seemed like too much.
  • Did the structure of the story make it confusing? (At first, I didn’t know who Jay was, because she wasn’t named in the first scene. In fact, I initially thought that Jay was a man.)

Again, there’s nothing wrong with disliking a piece of writing, but you need to figure out why you feel that way.

Your Turn: Pick Apart a Piece of Writing

So you’ve seen how I do it. Now it’s your turn to find a blog post, ebook or other piece of web copy and pick its structure apart. Start by looking at:

  • Introductions and conclusions – how do these help frame the piece?
  • Chapter lists (in an ebook) or subheadings (in a blog post) – do these follow a logical progress? How do they fit together?
  • The structure of each chapter or subsection – is there any consistent pattern? For instance, does each chapter have an example halfway through and end with an exercise?

If you learn something new or come up with a great idea for a post or ebook of your own, let us know in the comments. Tell us about your structure experience, or why you like or don’t like a particular writer’s usual structure use.

Post by Ali Luke

Ali Luke is a writer and writing coach from the UK, and her posts can be found all over the blogosphere. She’s the author of the popular Blogger’s Guide series of ebooks and has just released The Blogger’s Guide to Irresistible Ebooks – which will take you step-by-step through creating and launching your own ebook. Men with Pens readers get a $5 discount with the code “penmen”.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. A way to analyse structure is to delete everything but the skimmed elements – title, image, image caption, first 50 words, subheads and conclusion. If you can read only that and sound coherent, then you’ve got a good structure.

    That is, after all, only what 90% of your readers will ever read.

    An example of this would be the previous post on this blog. I can read the introduction and subheads only and understand it completely.

    The exception to this is a post with a good storytelling structure, like you’ll see on Johnny Truant’s or Peter Shallard’s blog. Subheads can be rare things here. But most bloggers aren’t good enough writers to pull something this off. You need a certain unique something in the writing.

    Another thing to look for is consistent typography. You’ll see print books with small caps starting every three paragraphs through the whole book. And you’ll see blog posts with bold words in the same spot in each paragraph or subsection. That was used in this post here. But haphazardly emphasising random words makes a post annoying.

    • Thanks, Patrick, great way to look at structure (and not something I’d really consciously thought about before).

      I completely agree with you about emphasis and consistency: it is indeed annoying to have seemingly-random words picked out in bold.

    • I find the “skim-effect” to be a huge problem with many blogs.The more skim-able an article is, the less chance I’ll read it. It could just be bad writing, but when an article is split into a skim-able format including subtitles, callout text etc. it’s just too easy to skim the subtitles and get the gist of the entire article as apposed to actually reading what the author is saying.

      This is especially the case for typical list-type articles, i.e. “10 tips for better web writing” where lets face it, you read the 10 subtitles which clearly state each tip, effectively skipping all of the body text which in most cases seems to simply reiterate the subtitle list.

      In theory, I agree with the skim-able format and in some cases it probably serves a purpose, however in practice I think it’s flawed. Either you want people to read your content or not; or the content is so badly written that readers who sample body paragraphs end up reverting back to the skim-able subtitles. The question is, if you want people skim your content, have you written too much? Or is the content even relevant?

      Of course there are times when content should be scannable, maybe for extremely long articles, or for articles where the individual parts are just as important on their own. I think there’s a fine line between scannable and skimable.

  2. Hi Ali,

    Your professors would be proud. You “showed” us how to use critical analysis on 2 different posts. This is something every writing program should be teaching.

    Love that you used Darren, it shows you’re confident and gutsy enough to take on THE PROBLOGGER. Plus, it shows you know the MwP audience. He is a celebrity for most of us which would peak our curiousity and allow for a common conversation. Only thing you missed was putting an affiliate link for Premise, bet you could make some sales. :)

    So much about blogging is overwhelming. Sharing the structure–with examples–makes us all smarter and more thoughtful writers. You are a good teacher, you inspired me to go do homework and analyze my last post.

    • Thanks, Mary! I agree that critical analysis is such an important skill … and one that doesn’t just come naturally to bloggers (unless they’ve got an academic background in literature).

      Darren is one of my favourite bloggers, and I wanted to pick him because, like you say, he’s a familiar figure to the MwP audience … but also because his style isn’t “in yer face” like some bloggers. (And yet it still works!)

      Hope the “homework” goes well. :-)

  3. Thanks so much for this – enormously useful tips and something I hadn’t thought about. Also, adding a comment link into the body of the post is genius! I read from Google Reader and was blown away.

    I read the creative e-book previously and although I was confused at first – I think I learned much better from the type of ‘implicit’ learning that took place. I had to decide for myself who was doing it right and who was doing it wrong. That kind of learning takes longer but is much more effective and long-lasting.

    • Yay, thanks Tera!

      I was surprised by the format of Mark’s ebook — like you, I found it made me do more of the work than usual! It’s so easy to read and nod along with good advice, but when you have to figure it out for yourself, it seems to sink in a bit deeper.

  4. An enormously useful post. I have so much to learn about writing well for my blog. I am thrilled I signed up for the Damn Fine Writing class. James Chartrand and Men With Pens Rock!

  5. HI Ali,

    As you know from writing your online courses, structure is a big thing when writing lessons as well.

    Structure is important because it creates a learning path that you want your students to follow. If you didn’t have structure, your students would be lost, not knowing what you want them to do.

    Many bloggers, who write courses, start writing lessons based on a blog post format. And that is a good start – with an intro, body and call for action. But lesson structures are more than that – they need to give example, lead people to come up with own opinions, provide opportunities to practice and reflect.

    A lesson structure has one goal – to propel people to action.

    The Damn Fine Words course has a deliberate structure as well – specifically crafted just for this course. It took some time to develop, and lots of tweaking and editing. But we are happy with the results (and so are the beta testers)

    Ainslie Hunter
    Damn Fine Online Teacher

    • Yeah, I think ecourses absolutely must have a strong structure — and hurrah to hear that you came up with a great one for DFW. :-)

      When I’ve done ecourses, I’ve tried to keep each lesson/module formatted in the same way (e.g. always giving an exercise at the end of the lesson) though this is something I could probably go further with..!

  6. Yeah:

    Thanks so much all of you to have taught me me how to go about my writing structure and to have introduced me to Darren & Mark important work. I will start my writing ecourse by you people.

    Ntarugera François

  7. Thanks Ali for such a thoughtful analysis.

    In the short section on the 5 money mistakes, each mistake takes up a page. That might seem like a purely cosmetic point, but it’s part of the structure. If one mistake took up three pages and another took up half a page, the ebook would feel poorly balanced.

    That was exactly my thinking. It took a bit of effort and editing to boil each point down to a single page, so I’m glad somebody noticed. :-)

  8. Those are some sexy breakdowns, good work Ali. This post has turned into a reference piece which I’ll need to creep often in the coming months.

  9. Nice post, Ali! You’ve really made me think, as always.
    My first love is fiction writing, and I think that these concepts apply very well. Aspiring fiction writers can read other books critically and analytically, thinking about what they liked and didn’t like about the author and what they did that worked.

  10. You presented some very compelling examples in this post. I find story telling to be a very effective method for communicating with readers, I’ve been using this structure in my weekly weight loss series title “Don’t Let It Weigh On You”. I find that storytelling allows readers to connect with the characters, particularly if you present them in a manner that resonates with the everyday problems that people are most likely to encounter. This style allows the writer to educate AND entertain the audience.


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