You probably learned in high school how to structure an essay: “Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say you’ve said it.”
For high school students, this is a reasonable instruction. It helps them learn to organize their thoughts instead of just pouring their stream of consciousness onto the paper. It also makes essays easier to grade.
Just in case you missed day one of these gifts for writers: You’re not in high school anymore. You can outgrow the high school rule. Your readers aren’t there to grade you. They’re there because of desire.
You need structure, of course. But the structure you need isn’t a stone castle, held in place by its own heaviness. It’s a suspension bridge, held in place by tension: the tension between desire and the obstacles to its fulfillment. And it doesn’t just let your readers walk in and stop; it gives them a route from one place to another and expects them to keep going from there.
When I was in grade 6, I had an idea for a movie about a guy who decided to break Guinness world records. My script started with the first record. He tried it, and he failed. And then he tried the second, and he failed. And then he tried the third, and he failed. And then… Anyway, after a page and a half I got bored and stopped. It would have been even more boring if he had succeeded in breaking every record without difficulty. Where’s the tension? Where’s the adventure?
When I say desire, I’m not talking just about the characters’ desires, either (though certainly them, if it’s fiction). I mean the readers’ desires. That’s who it’s for.
You noticed I said “If it’s fiction”? Yes, if. Nonfiction also needs desire and tension. It doesn’t matter how factual what you’re presenting is, if there is no desire and no tension between obstruction and fulfillment of that desire, it’s boring. And if it’s boring, you’ve failed to convey it.
This goes for all kinds of text. Even signs in washrooms. “Please wash your hands before returning to work”? The author (or the person or organization spoken for by the text, such as restaurant management) wants you (staff) to do something (maintain sanitary hands) and is afraid you won’t for some reason or other (you’re lazy; you don’t care). If they weren’t afraid, they wouldn’t bother telling you. But you also desire things (not to waste time or have gross wet hands), fear things (the grossness of the taps that all those other dirty people have touched), and face obstacles (got a job to do! time’s a-wasting!). If that sign in the washroom does its job well, it shows how fears and obstacles can be overcome and desires met, all in the service of doing what the author desires. Perhaps it suggests using a paper towel to turn off that gross dirty wet tap. Perhaps it points out that washing hands is the law and that dirty hands are gross and may cause infection and job loss.
Yes, most signs aren’t very effective. Please be aware that if you are writing signs, I will be disappointed in you if you don’t make them effective. If they’re not effective, they’re just eyesores and they waste perfectly fine words.
All good writing is an adventure. You start by presenting a topic or question that creates a need in readers: It makes them aware of an itch that you promise to scratch. But you don’t just methodically scratch it. Not if it’s more than 50 words long! In nonfiction longer than a washroom sign, there is a more detailed structure: a through line with ups and downs, playing out the tension in the course of reading. You must have peaks and setbacks to make it worthwhile. You show what looks like the clear way to the resolution of the problem, but then… No! How about this thing! It builds up, creates tension, releases a little, creates more, releases a little more…
I told you this already: Toy with your audience. Everything good does. Listen to a symphony. The first movement of Beethoven’s fifth is a clear example: It states a theme, develops it, plays with it, opposes it to another theme, builds up, partially resolves, builds up more, has an unexpected turn, works through that, resolves it, finally reaches a climax and summation. You need to do that in nonfiction too.
As a writer, you’re doing it with words, and that’s good, because all words have emotional tones. “Keep your hands free from soil” has a different tone than “Don’t have dirty hands,” and “What you’re saying is inaccurate” has a different effect than “You’re wrong.” “Medication” is a more neutral and clinical-seeming term than “medicine” or “drug.” Every word you write plucks on the heartstrings at least a little, and most of them pluck on several strings at a time. Get to know which strings each word plucks. One thing that will help you find out is that words are known by the company they keep. See what contexts a word is used in and what other words it’s generally used with.
“But I’m dealing with facts, not feelings!” Oh, my dear, sweet, obtuse, obnoxious child. You are always dealing with feelings. People always have feelings about facts. If you get annoyed when someone doesn’t see and accept the clear, obvious facts you are presenting, you’re proving my point. You care about these facts because… you careabout them.
But wait, there’s more: Our primary use of logic is for justifying things we desire. I’m not going to give you a lengthy disquisition on psychology, but if you don’t believe me, you can find plenty of lengthy disquisitions on psychology that support this. I’m not saying that logic is all just a mask for feeling, or that we never use logic to override our initial desires – heck, if we desire to be logical, then logic itself serves that desire – but your plain, well-stated logic serves some real-world effect you desire, and it will hit a brick wall if does not serve what your readers desire.
So you have to frame things in terms of what your readers desire and fear. You don’t have to be obvious about it, but you should at least be aware of what desires and fears are summoned by the words and images you use. There’s a reason that some politicians talk about “family” this and “family” that so much even when they’re busy harming a lot of families. There’s a reason they frame so many things in terms of “safety” or “security.” There’s a reason racists can seem so remarkably concerned with hygiene.
You may think I’m telling you to be sneaky and manipulative. I’m not. I’m telling you to be conscious. Be aware of every note you’re playing on readers’ heartstrings; you’re playing them whether you know it or not. And remember, as you lead them through ups and downs in your exposition of a factual topic, you’re doing what they want you to. They’re there because they want to be glad they’ve read what you’ve written, and one thing that makes them glad they’ve read it is a good experience of reading it.
Notwithstanding all of the foregoing, don’t waste your readers’ time. Obstacles have to be real obstacles, not bullshit. Readers don’t care about what you want unless you’ve given them a reason to. And if your text is reference material, then the central desires are the reader’s desire to find a fact and your desire for them to find the right fact, and the obstacles are what you present the fact as overcoming, not obstacles to their finding the fact in the first place.
Beyond all this, you still have to develop a sense of structure that’s appropriate for the genre. Your readers are going to expect certain things to be in certain places, and if you don’t do that you damn well better have a good reason for it. So you need to get to know the rules of your genre by reflex.
Which leads to tomorrow’s gift.