openbook

One of the biggest questions being asked by participants of my recent courses is:

How do you structure a piece of writing?

It’s only when you apply structure to an entire piece of work from start to finish, and do it at least three times, will you “get structure”. In my book, that structure is the Anatomy of Body Copy and, according to many a course graduate, it has been a very useful ‘map’ for shaping their writing. So the aim of this post is to answer the above question with a stage-by-stage explanation that breaks down the Anatomy into its six parts.

Just as a sonata is made up of three movements: exposition, development and recapitulation; and a story has a beginning, a middle and an end; so too does the Anatomy move from introduction to substantiation to conclusion. The extra three stages are the headline and the transitions.

Your homework (should you accept) is to read this post from start to finish, then apply the 6 stages to your next project. Do this three times.

Climate BookAs a useful resource for studying the Anatomy of Body Copy’s forward moving structure, download Climate of Ingenuity: a series of group projects written by RMIT Copywriting in Action participants (2010—2013). All stories, including the 1000 word editorial on Biomimics (by participants of the advanced CWiA program at The Wheelers Centre, 2012) demonstrate the Anatomy’s six movements from concept to completion.

1: Arrest Attention

The big type above this picture is a headline, or title in academic circles. It sums up in a just few select words exactly what your advertisement, web page, editorial or essay is all about. It should be clear, concise and compelling enough to make the reader want to dip into the introduction. Even if you know the reader will read your piece, have a go at writing an interesting headline. It makes your content inviting to read as well as show that you know how to engage the audience. Note that the headline does not repeat what the picture is saying, which in this case is Anatomy of Body Copy. Together, headline and picture complete the message.

Because this post addresses the question of structure,  my headline is quite simply, Six Part Structure for Moving Story Forward. It’s plain English. It uses concrete language. It says what it promises to deliver — a structure for moving your story forward. And it introduces the name of the structure via the picture in which there are six stages, the first being the headline / title that we have just covered.

The headline (stage 1) and the introduction (stage 2) combine as the first impression you make on your audience. It is essential to make it a positive one so they will be open and receptive to the words that follow.

2: Introduction

We are now at the second stage — the introduction paragraph. It’s very important for a number of reasons. Technically, it expands on the headline and proves it right by elaborating on the theme of your piece and showing the audience how it fits into their world. Psychologically, the introduction is the means by which you make a connection with the audience, again through some kind of relevance factor. Of course, you need to know what makes your target audience tick to write an introduction that hooks them in.

Which brings me to the all important opening hook line that is the first sentence of the first paragraph. I’ve already written about opening hook lines in a three part series of posts, so you can go to them for examples of how to grab your reader and make them want to read on.

3: Transition One

Now that we have come to the end of the introduction paragraph, we enter the third stage of the Anatomy of Body Copy — Transition One. In speech writing, it is a rhetorical device known as a metabasis. This is one sentence that sums up what has just been said (in the introduction) and sets up what is about to be said in the substantiation (stage four). George Orwell demonstrates this in his essay, Politics and The English Language:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, (the sum up) let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to (the set up).

And now that you see how the transition works like a bridge, we can cross over to the substantiation part of the story. Notice how we are moving forward all the way.

4: Substantiation

We have arrived at the fourth stage — the substantiation section. This is where all your data, information, knowledge and insight is presented, and in an orderly fashion please — narrative logic to be precise. Depending on the amount of information, it could be one paragraph (short form writing like ads and web pages) or it could be multiple paragraphs (long form such as editorials and essays). In the short form, the paragraph (or series of really short paragraphs) prose together all the key features and benefits (if you’re selling) or points (if you’re telling) of a particular story. The way to structure this section is to:

  1. write a shopping list of features and their benefits or points
  2. shortlist them down to the ones most relevant to the story
  3. arrange them in order of narrative logic
  4. then write them into prose.

In long form writing, you will need to apply paragraph structure. This is made up of three parts:

  1. the topic sentence and the writer’s commenting idea
  2. 3—5 substantiation sentences (explaining, describing, validating the commenting idea)
  3. a concluding sentence that sums up and sets up (the transition/metabasis).

5: Transition Two

Now that you’ve got all the facts about the substantiation stage (notice how this clause sums up), we come to the fifth stage — a transition sentence that takes us to the conclusion (notice how this clause sets up).

In short form writing, it is obvious as a fifth stage because there are basically six stages all up. But in long form writing, there are many more paragraphs made up of many more sentences, so there are more transitions going on. So think of the fifth stage as that last transition that segues to the conclusion paragraph.

6: Conclusion

We’re in the home stretch and we can now see the finishing line — welcome to the conclusion stage. There are six strategies toward a strong conclusion, which I have covered and demonstrated in another post. The conclusion paragraph is when you bring your story to a satisfying resolution that leaves your audience with a last (an ideally lasting) impression. It helps the reader see why all your analysis,  information or argument should matter to them. This is as important as the first impression. Just as the first impression brings the reader into the story in a meaningful and inviting way, the last impression allows the reader to exit the story with a sense that they have gained some useful addition to their knowledge, awareness or understanding.

Just as the hook line opens the introduction with a sort of a bang, it is often smart to write a finishing sentence in the conclusion that signs off on a memorable note. A favourite of us copywriters is the end-line that circles back to the headline/title (and if you don’t have a title, make it circle back to the key idea, words or phrase in the opening paragraph). The trick is to not reiterate the headline word for word. Let me show you by concluding this post with: no matter what type of writing you do, you’ll find the Anatomy of Body Copy a reliable GPS for moving your story forward from an arresting start to a memorable ending.

Post-script

No, this is not part of the Anatomy of Body Copy, it is an invitation to submit comments or questions. I will be happy to reply and clarify on any lingering confusion you may still have. But the way to master structure is to practice it and there’s always my online course — this eight session program is structured on the Anatomy of Body Copy.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for future posts presenting case studies that show you how the structure works in action.

8 Comments

  1. Christopher says:

    I like the list format being a list person.
    I also like the examples given of how to start these 6 different sections. Something to help me get started

  2. Mel says:

    Useful summary and reference guide. I particularly found the point about Transition 2 being so much more obvious in short form copy than in long form – makes complete sense but had never actually considered it that way. For me having written short form for so many years I think Substantiation to Transition 2 in longer prose would be a (most welcome) challenge for me.

  3. Bonny Westmore says:

    This is a great resource. I have no doubt that I’ll come back to it again and again. Thanks!

  4. Simon Carr says:

    This is a great format, and if followed, delivers the much sort after beginning, middle & end essential to every good story.

  5. Veronica says:

    It’s helpful to know the structure of copy flow, it’ll make writing less daunting.

  6. Jessie L says:

    Great article. I agree with Julie – really clear and concise. Thank you, Nicolas.

  7. Julie Wood says:

    A really clear and concise way to set structure to any copy – thanks Nicolas. I particularly like the ‘sum-up, set-up’ principle to keep the copy flowing. It mirrors Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle in the way that you flow on to the next point of substantiation.

  8. Joanne Rittey says:

    Anatomy is such a great word for the break down of Body Copy. It makes it quite approachable..well, at least it makes how to move forward understandable…actually finding the words is the next step…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *