Friday, January 21, 2011

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

Esther’s comprehensive January 19 post covered many of the organization methods available to writers. She identified comparison-contrast, deductive logic, point-by-point analysis, development of a central theme, and chronological history of an event. My trusty old Handbook of Technical Writing adds even more methods: sequential, increasing-order-of-importance, decreasing-order-of-importance, division-and-classification, spatial, specific-to-general, general-to-specific, and cause-and-effect.

“A logical method of development,” it says, “satisfies the reader’s need for a controlling shape and structure for your subject.”

But how do you choose which method to use? That decision can depend on several factors, including your subject, your audience, and the purpose of your writing. Are you writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry? For babies, children, or young adults? To inform, to entertain, or to persuade? Each answer helps determine the appropriate structure.

Many stories are organized in chronological order: this happened, then this, then this. What if you want to create suspense? You might withhold a critical piece of information and reveal it later.

Most of my picture books rely on rhythm and rhyme to help move the stories along. In each case, an editor helped me shape a story by creating a flow through time. Cats on Judy and Sing-Along Song both span a day in the life of the main character. Waiting Out the Storm takes place over the length of a conversation between a mother and daughter before and during a thunderstorm. My newest book Baby Says, “Moo!” (March 2011) follows Baby through a shopping trip, to the countryside, and finally to a picnic destination. It’s both sequential and cumulative—the trickiest structure I’ve ever played with. Reordering segments to create a more logical progression of events required a thorough rethinking of both structure and language—my kind of fun!

Nonfiction topics can demand a specific organization method. Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move began as a list of seeds that moved about in a variety of interesting ways, such as by wind, water, or animal carriers. After I recognized the categories of travel methods, I used them to assemble the seeds into logical groups.

Many of the nonfiction series books I wrote for beginning readers cover the life cycle of one animal from birth to death. A nonfiction picture book manuscript I’m currently submitting, Whirling Birds: Chimney Swifts Circle through Summer, describes an eventful summer in the life of one of my favorite birds.

Gary Paulsen: Voice of Adventure and Survival is a biography of the author of Hatchet and other exciting books for children. Its structure is also chronological, and its young adult audience determined the age-appropriate content. A picture book biography, however, might include only a significant portion of a subject’s life or the incidents that show one aspect of that life.

Write a Poem Step by Step, another manuscript I’m submitting now, is based on the poetry writing workshops I’ve been presenting for nearly fifteen years. It requires a sequential approach because each step builds on the previous one. Poems written by students in my workshops illustrate each step in the process.

Whatever you write, consider your topic, your audience, and your objective to find the most logical way to organize your writing and satisfy your reader. That will help you get your ducks in a row!

Writing Workout

Graphic organizers can help you find the best way to arrange your ideas. Here are some sites with free printable examples. Give them a try!

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Education Place

JoAnn Early Macken


Kate Coombs said...

Interesting, especially the idea of rhythm and rhyme as an organizational tool.

Amy L V said...

I love rereading favorite books and poetry to discover the underlying structures, and considering many approaches to the same subject cracks open so many possibilities! I look forward to WRITE A POEM STEP BY STEP. A.

April Halprin Wayland said...

I look forward to your upcoming books...especially Write a Poem Step by Step!