Good writing starts with good organization: Three ways to get on track

The writing process can get thorny. Moving from an outline to a draft, let alone to a polished final product, is an exercise in patience, as well as a study in detail. It’s not for everyone, and many people rush through it, head down, to get to the finish line—or simply give up part way through the process.

Those of us who enjoy the writing process have honed a few skills that serve us well. As the saying goes, “trust the process.” Writing is never easy, especially when you’re wrangling complex ideas or distilling new research. But a few structured approaches at the outset can help you get organized and see where you’re going and what’s missing, saving you an unpleasant realization three drafts later.

Outlining: Lay down the blueprint

Not everyone loves the outline, but I think most of my colleagues at Leff will agree that it’s pretty damn helpful.

Starting a new piece is exciting. You have a wealth of ideas in your head and can’t wait to get everything down. But going the route of the “idea dump” often leads to a jumble of thoughts that need to be organized later, which can make the drafting step more arduous than necessary.

Instead, write down the main “beats” of the piece: What is your thesis or argument? What are the supporting points that you’ll use to defend it? What action do you want your readers to take? Write out each beat in its own sentence, and then place every point that supports it under that section.

After getting the basic story line from the authors, we’ll write out the main points, and then comb through the provided material to find supporting points and data, bucketing them under each section.

Writing the introduction: See if your argument holds water

William Zinsser once wrote, “The most important sentence in any article is the first one.” While I agree with him, I’d argue that the entire introduction is on par. You can pull readers in with a good first sentence, but if the rest of the introduction doesn’t promise anything of value, you won’t keep eyes on the page.

When I’m working with clients on an outline, I almost always draft the introduction and keep the rest of the article in traditional outline format before sending it along. Writing the introduction forces me to articulate the main argument we’re setting forth—and to see if it holds water.

Think of the introduction as your entire piece condensed into three to four paragraphs. Writing this out can also bring to light issues in the organization of your piece or your argument.

Therefore, don’t let your outline be sacred. If the introduction makes it clear that you need to rearrange things, then do so. You’ll be glad you did when you move to drafting.

Remembering the point: Find a north star

When you’re on the fifth iteration of a piece, it can be difficult to remember your main thesis, especially when you’re trying to chisel away at long sentences and infuse nuance.

I once read about a writer who kept “the point” in front of her at all times while writing. In this case, the point was an index card stuck above her desk with a one-sentence summary of what her book was about.

This approach can serve as a north star during your writing process, from your outline all the way through to the editing stages. I take this approach to stay focused: I write one sentence encapsulating the entire point of the piece—what it’s trying to solve, or why what I’m saying is new and different—and I keep it at the top of the document.

When you’re lost in a draft or aren’t sure if a specific paragraph or section is clicking, remind yourself of the point.


Next time the thought of writing seems impossible, just remember to trust the process.

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