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Static: Lack of or Confusing Organization

FIRST, A REMINDER: Southern Writers magazine is featuring the first of a two-part article about my book Combat! Spiritual Lessons from Military History on their blog site TODAY! I’d love for you to visit, read the article, say hello, and ask any questions you might have about the book or how it came about. The magazine will post the second part of the article on March 6.


Now, back to our efforts to squelch the static in our writing. In the last post, we dealt with the desirability of writing in active voice. Today we focus on good organization.

Poorly organized writing is an indication of a poorly organized mind. It communicates confusion, lack of order and prioritizing, and hurried, sloppy writing. Well-organized writing, on the other hand, shows that the author has thought carefully about his or her subject, prioritized and ordered the various points logically, and knows exactly where he or she is going with the message.

I used with my Basic Composition students the analogy of a train, from the locomotive through all the various types of rolling stock to the little red caboose. (Well, today there is no caboose. Railroads long ago replaced the caboose with FRED, a flashing rear-end device, but I think you get the point.)

The locomotive is the motive power for your entire piece of writing, be it an article, an essay, a story, or a book. It drives everything else that follows. It is your discussion starter, your thesis statement. It points the direction your piece will take and defines the parameters and limitations (where you won’t be going with the piece).

Every car that follows your locomotive makes up the consist. They represent the various points you want to make. This might involve only a single car (paragraph) or multiple cars (several paragraphs, all united to a central point), depending on how many points you want to make. But each of those points must have its own topic sentence that guides

everything you will say in the rest of the paragraph. Every sentence in a paragraph must in some logical way support or illustrate that topic sentence. It could be a quotation, an example, a definition, or a host of other supporting techniques. If you notice any sentence that isn’t doing that job, kick it off the train! Delete it! Every sentence must both carry its own weight and help support the topic sentence of the paragraph.

Strung together, one after another behind the motive power, these cars (paragraphs) make up the train, the consist. But they cannot be strung together willy-nilly. The order in which they are arranged must have logic. In a freight train, each car or block of cars is arranged in the train according to when it is to be disconnected at its proper destination. Similarly, the various points of your article, essay, story, or book must indicate a logical order or sequence. Sometimes that will be chronological. At other times, it might be sequential, as in the directions for assembling a piece of furniture or making a cake. You don’t want to put the cart before the horse! And you can signal the reader of that ordering scheme by using key words (e.g., then, next; first, second, third; finally; on the other hand; consequently; etc.).

The caboose (or FRED) is your conclusion. This is a summary statement that ends the discussion. It’s the final word on the subject. It ties all else together. And then it STOPS! A big mistake many writers (and speakers) make is to introduce new information or a new point in their concluding paragraph. That’s like attaching another car or two behind the caboose. Readers won’t know whether you’re finished or not.

But your train needs one other thing or it still won’t go anywhere. Each of the cars (paragraphs) must be linked to the preceding and following cars. On a train, this equipment is called a coupler; in writing, it’s called a transition. It might be a single word, such as second or third if you’re

presenting points in a particular order. It might be On the other hand if you’re showing a contrast. It could be Meanwhile if you’re describing simultaneous events. But whatever you use to join the paragraphs, each one must logically follow another and be linked together.

If you keep this train analogy in mind as you write, you’ll avoid confusion and misunderstanding among your readers, and you’ll send a clear, strong, well-organized message. You’ll deliver the goods!

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