Organization is a challenge for writers. You may have strong ideas, feel confident with grammar, and write in a fun style.
But putting it all together in a structure that makes sense? That can be hard.
There’s no one perfect way to structure most projects. You have options.
Some people find this liberating. They enjoy exploring countless options and settle naturally into an order that makes sense for their content.
Other writers find this overwhelming. They’d like to be told, “If you’re writing THIS, you always use THAT structure.”
Without structure, those writers get stuck.
Structure Brings Order and Clarity
In fact, I’ve met with writers who have been stuck for weeks, months…occasionally for years. All because they didn’t know how to structure their project.
Without structure, they didn’t know how to order and organize their ideas, so writing itself felt confusing. They simply shoved it aside, unclear what to do next.
Structure brings order and clarity to the writer.
And structure brings order and clarity to the reader.
Structure for Poets
Some writing offers built-in structure.
If you’re a poet, for example, you can turn to form poetry to find structure built into the assignment. So many kinds of poems follow a form or a pattern, like a sestina, sonnet, and a rondelet. They each come with rules, rhythms, and rhyme schemes. While challenging, these limits offer structure that a poet who works in free verse lacks.
Structure for Novelists
Novelists can turn to structure that works well for fiction, such as the hero’s journey. The author doesn’t have to include the obligatory scenes, but many genres work well when the author hits those beats, moments, or scenes a reader has come to expect.
Structure for Nonfiction Writers
Nonfiction writers may face the blank page with no idea where to start. Or they spit out their ideas with no clue how to arrange them to create an order that flows well for the reader.
Writers who compose essays, articles, books know they have a problem to solve: they need structure.
And they may struggle with structure due to lack of resources. Maybe no one has pointed out to them structure options. Or maybe they struggle to remain objective with their own material to see how it would best flow.
They may have tried methods they’ve learned over the years and those have gotten them only so far.
Mind Maps Don’t Automatically Lead to Structure
For instance, maybe they tried a mind map. And that helped them spit out the main ideas they want to cover in their book. But all those circles spread out like a web on the paper don’t themselves reveal a solid structure—they just reveal a number of possible starting points and all their subpoints. So the mind map may have served to pull out of the writer content ideas, but the map itself didn’t result in a clear structure.
Traditional Outlines Don’t Automatically Lead to Structure
The writer of nonfiction may have reverted to the I, II, III, and A, B, C format they remembered from their youth, with those Roman numerals leading the eye down the page with indented A, B, C items underneath. Under those lines came the numbers 1, 2, 3, then lowercase a, b, c, followed by the little “i’s” with one “i” then two “ii’s” and “iii’s” that created those miniature Roman numerals, leading up to “iv’s” and “v’s.”
The poor writer may spend more time fretting over those little “i’s” than they do crafting content. So knowing how to type up a list with Roman numerals again doesn’t in and of itself reveal a structure.
Even organized, sequential-types who love to line up papers and numbers and files and books on shelves can create a perfectly reasonable classic outline, yet find themselves unsure if that’s formed an effective structure for their writing project.
Try Ready-Made Outlines to Structure Your Next Project
How can writers who struggle to organize their ideas find a structure that works?
I propose they try “ready-made” outlines.
I’m calling these big, broad outlines “ready-made outlines” because they serve as templates to try out with your content. They offer a broad, big-picture, flexible structure that can be applied to projects of all sizes and types, as you group your ideas under the overall headings.
Ready-made outlines serve the writer by providing her with multiple structures to test out in order to find one that best suits the material.
As I said last time, my source for these ready-made outlines is the speech and debate club I’m part of. We use these to help impromptu speakers have a place to start.
The first one I introduced to you was the past-present-future outline. It’s just one ready-made outline to try out on all kinds of projects.
For example, a past-present-future outline could work as structure for:
- sales pages
- how-to projects
- analysis essays or articles
- books (organize chapters under the past, present, and future sections and/or organize a given chapter with that structure)
This week’s ready-made outline is Problem-Solution or Problem-Solution-Benefit.
You can see how straightforward it is, and how handy it can be for certain writing projects.
I gave it a try with this very article. If you look back, you can see my general flow.
Introduction: If you were try try this outline, you’d start with an introduction that would include some kind of hook.
For this piece, I just talked about the challenge of structure for writers.
Problem: Next, you’d introduce the problem.
Pretty quickly I transitioned to introducing the writer’s problem of structure—or lack thereof. You can see from my attempt here that a problem you’re writing about doesn’t have to be a giant societal-level problem. It can be a small frustration of any kind.
When you think about your audience, and you imagine their struggles, frustrations, and challenges, that’s the problem—that’s your starting point with this ready-made outline.
Articulate the problem. Speak their language. Get your audience nodding, “Yes. That IS my problem.”
Solution: Then, you introduce a solution (or solutions).
You may have one proven solution to one specific problem, and the writing will be narrow and focused. Or you may offer multiple solutions to a complex problem, and your writing will be more involved.
Conclusion: Follow that with a conclusion, and you’re done.
You’re done, that is, unless you want to touch on benefits of implementing the solution. I mean, the obvious benefit is that the problem is solved. But your readers may appreciate a window into what their life would look like and what they’d feel like if they implemented that solution, so the additional “benefits” section could serve them well.
That’s it in a nutshell. That’s how you can test the Problem-Solution or Problem-Solution-Benefit outline.
Problem-Solution Example: Article Structure
Let’s say you contribute content to a website that focuses on organization. Perhaps you’ll write an article that addresses the problem of training young children to understand and begin joining in the process of sorting, folding, and putting away laundry. Laundry can be an overwhelming problem that parents face, and you’ll offer several possible solutions.
Well, there’s your structure to test out:
If you add the benefits, you might find research showing the self-esteem rises exponentially in children who contribute to meaningful household chores and your family grows close by working together.
But often the benefits are self-evident—like your family has clean, folded laundry each week. In that case, you can leave that element off the outline.
Let’s look at another writing project.
Problem-Solution Example: Letter to the Editor (or Op-Ed) Structure
If you’re troubled by a local issue and want to write a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece, the Problem-Solution ready-made outline could work well for organizing your thoughts with a structure that readers find easy to follow.
- Hook (a sentence or two to hook the reader)
Again, you could add in benefits if you have the space and if it feel it adds value to the message. But you can leave it off if the benefits are obvious or if they could be summarized in the conclusion.
Problem-Solution Example: Nonfiction Book Structure
Maybe you’re writing a book about communication in the workplace. You could try out the problem-solution ready-made outline to see if the content fits.
Problem(s): First you analyze some of the biggest communication problems people face in the workplace.
Solution(s): Most of the book will probably focus on the solutions to those problems.
Benefit(s): If the solutions don’t already make clear the benefits gained beyond solving the problem, a book could bring this up chapter by chapter or in a section toward the end of the book.
Perhaps you have a multi-step process that can work for every communication challenge: “Seven Steps to Clear Communication in the Workplace.” After the early chapters introduce the problems, the next several chapters could each tackle a step of this process.
Or maybe you have different communication solutions for different communication problems. In that case, you could address each separately, one per chapter, presenting both the problems and solutions specific to emails, team meetings, reports, newsletters, and one-on-one mentoring conversations. Each chapter could take on a type of communication.
Either way, you would still be turning to the problem-solution outline.
Applications for Problem-Solution Outline
Longer projects will offer more layers of analysis and more examples to support claims, but you can see how this ready-made outline can be used with a variety of writing projects. I think it could work for:
- testimonials (past-present-future is one structure for testimonials, but problem-solution is another option for someone to explain they had a problem and this product or service was the perfect solution to that problem)
- sales pages (again, problem-solution is a really basic approach that helps you organize your thoughts and explain what you offer)
- letter to the editor
- blog post
- book (overall structure and micro-level within a given chapter could follow problem-solution structure)
Problem-Solution Outline for Essay Structure
While the Problem-Solution (or Problem-Solution-Benefit) structure may seem best suited to prescriptive-type content, I think this can also be a wonderful way to enter into personal essays.
Question (“Problem”) Launches Inquiry
If an essayist starts with a question, or inquiry, that invites the essayist to follow that question (aka “problem”) into the piece. Keep this creative openness to see where the question leads.
Let’s say the essayist wonders something or poses a question. If he thinks of that more or less as a problem and writes toward that, continuing to question that, he may be seeking an answer to that question, or deeper insight into that observation, or maybe even an epiphany.
Answer (“Solution”) Revealed Through Inquiry
By keeping that overall structure in mind, the essayist can explore the problem from various angles in hopes of experiencing breakthrough in understanding without forcing the matter.
That’s a more subtle, nuanced variation of the Problem-Solution approach, but if you creatively press into a question, you’re likely seeking some kind of solution.
Problem-Solution Example: Memoir
A memoir that focuses on an era of a person’s life might loosely follow this structure, by showing the problem this person faced and how complicated life got until they encountered, finally, some kind of solution.
And this solution may not be a tidy one, so you can think broadly about the idea of “solution.”
The memoir possibly rolls into a kind of benefits segment. Again, none of these words need to appear anywhere in the text—it’s just a way for you mentally to group information or scenes in search of a possible structure to test on your own content. To try it out, you drop scenes into these three big categories or sections of the memoir: problem, solution, benefit.
Maybe the problem is that a memoirist struggles to trust a parent, so the scenes establish this and lead ultimately to a scene or a moment when this shifted. The writer gained insight into this parent, and that ignited compassion or openness and the relationship grew.
Or perhaps the opposite happened—the parent had a deep mental illness and the problem was that the memoirist kept making herself vulnerable only to be hurt again and again. And the solution came when she realized sometimes even a parent is so deeply scarred and struggling that a trusting relationship isn’t possible. So the memoirist finds new ways to protect herself while trying to relate to the parent and finds trust in other relationships.
Is the Problem-Solution Outline the Structure for Your Next Project?
So many kinds of writing address a problem of some kind, it’s worth giving this ready-made outline a try.
And keep in mind you don’t have to use the actual words “problem” and “solution” to apply this structure to your next writing project. If you prefer a more subtle approach, you can use different words—synonyms—to imply a similar structure.
Try it out and see if this is the solution you’re looking for. For writers who struggle with structure, the Problem-Solution or the Problem-Solution-Benefits ready-made outline may be the remedy you’re looking for.
- Are Outlines a Writer’s Greatest Gift…or Curse? (Ep 214)
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