Your Writing Cheat Sheet
Sep 03, 2019
Why is it is so hard to start a new piece of writing?
After teaching college students, coaching professionals, and writing for businesses, I’ve discovered three simple reasons:
You haven’t spent enough time gathering your thoughts or data needed to write.
You haven’t scheduled time to write.
You don’t know how to get started.
I’ve written other articles focused on the attitude of getting started. I even wrote a whole chapter on the topic in Write Big
, called the “Ready, Set, Mindset.”
Essentially, you have to stiff arm your internal critic by writing fast so you can make the important discoveries needed to write your project. It’s a trick for getting started not for writing an entire work, so use with caution.
In this article, however, I want to talk about what’s underneath the uncertainty of getting started, and I don’t mean your 4th grade teacher’s criticism of your handwriting. No, I am talking about the way most of us were never taught the value of understanding the structure of a paragraph.
Note here that I say “the value,” not the act of learning how to write a paragraph. Here’s a simple illustration. Most native English speakers learn the following spelling rule somewhere in grade school:
“Use ‘I’ after “E’ unless after ‘C.’ Friend not Freind or Receive not Recieve
A lot of people remember this spelling trick, while many adults would fail a test on parts of speech when asked to identify the direct object of a sentence. Why?
Well, it’s not because they didn’t learn. And nope. It’s not because they’re not smart.
They didn’t hold onto this information because it’s not useful. There are very, very few occasions in life where understanding the role of a direct objects matters. (Nouns, verbs, and adjectives on the other hand are a far different story. Stay tuned for more articles on this topic.)
So back to the value of understanding the structure of a paragraph, along with a promise: If you memorize the structure of a paragraph, you don’t ever have to suffer writer’s block again. (See disclaimers 🙂.)
A paragraph intends to develop a single idea fully, and that is an easy definition to memorize. Next, basic paragraph structure has the same structure as a story, which you likely learned in first grade: beginning, middle, end. Now don’t overlook this last bit as so obvious that it doesn’t matter. It matters a lot, and it’s the cause of a lot of false starts or rambling writing. Once you have the basic structure imprinted in your mind, you’re ready to superimpose a paragraph formula to help you write anything. That’s right! Whether you’re telling a story or writing a lab report, the same principals are at work.
A single sentence that names the main idea (Topic Sentence)
2-3 sentences that provide background information (Context)
2-3 sentences that provide a a specific example that illustrates the main idea (Evidence)
2-5 sentences that extract meaning from the example to show why your main idea matters (Analysis)
A simple sentence to close the paragraph (Closing Sentence)
Can a paragraph ever look or sound different? Can you have less or more ideas? Of course! This is a simple way to remember the structure of a paragraph so you can ultimately control your ideas, and so you can especially revise and edit with purpose. For instance, many people don’t know that Picasso actually knew how to draw perfectly. He’d studied drawing for years. He chose to vary the composition after he’d mastered the basics. In other words, imitate, then innovate.
Now you can choose to memorize the words in parenthesis or the other way around. The point is to apply this knowledge when you must write, not so you can be correct, but so you can be fast. Because, as you’ll read in my other articles, what makes writing interesting, funny, insightful, wonderful, and packed with meaning is not what we write in the first draft form but it comes from the time we spend in revision and editing—in other words, the time we spend making it better.
So, don’t get stuck writing out your basic thoughts. Instead, apply a useful formula and tell procrastination to hit the road. You got things to do.
Disclaimers: You will still suffer from the affliction known as writer’s block when you haven’t done the other two reasons listed in the opening of the article AND whenever you think your ideas are crap. It takes time to overcome hating your own writing but you can with practice. See my article on "Unhating Your Voice" and “Messy Idea Theory” for help with this.
Why is the middle portion of the blog in blue? I’m glad you asked. That my friend is an example of a paragraph. I am not indenting in these articles so you’re not cued as in formal writing, but if you read through, it has all of the components listed in the formula. Can you find them?