Waffle. Ramble. Repetition. Pointlessness. These are clear signs that your structure (what I prefer to call “narrative logic”) needs adjustment. Structure is like your spine. When it’s not ordered in a narrative logic, the written piece can cause disorientation, pain, stiffness, floundering, and even nausea when reading the body copy.
Narrative spine is more obvious in multi-page documents like brochures and white papers, where each section is a vertebrae in the overall structure (over-arching story). However, the same metaphor can be applied to a one page, long form piece such as articles, web copy and blog posts. And that’s what we will focus on here.
Between the first impression (headline, opening hook line and introduction paragraph) and the last impression (the conclusion) there is the substantiation section. This is where you talk about the features and benefits that support the claim or point you make in the story’s opening words. These substantiation sentences are what make for a compelling enough argument that persuades your reader to buy in to your point-of-view or proposition.
And just like sections in a brochure, these substantiation sentences make up the back bone that connects the head (introduction paragraph) with the legs (conclusion). Whether you write this (torso) section in prose or bullet points, the order you arrange the substantiation points (vertebrae) shows us how much authority, direction and control you have over the subject. These three attributes are determined by narrative logic — the most fitting arrangement of the vertebrae (substantiation points) in the narrative structure (substantiation paragraphs).
While we all judge quality content in terms of ideas, writerly verve, and the ten principles of clear writing¹, narrative logic is often overlooked in the conversation. Perhaps because we tend to be too lenient about structure; as long as the key points are made, who cares which order they come in, right?
Never underestimate the conscious, and especially sub-conscious, decisions your reader makes about your piece (and its author). I started taking this more seriously after doing some research a few years ago on the hospitality and restaurant industry. Andrew Freeman², a professional consultant on the subject, revealed that we make decisions about the slightest thing (stain on the menu = kitchen is dirty; the lighting makes your skin look good = hotel manager is attentive). These decisions are not always fully conscious.
What’s more, we tend to focus on the wrong more than the right. Even if five things go right, it only takes one thing to go wrong for us to be left with a predominantly negative impression. Ever read three good reviews followed by a bad review in TripAdvisor making you have second thoughts about that hotel?
So too in writing. Especially when you’re copywriting, where the audience is reluctant and impatient. One bad move in the logical flow of the argument can be like that “stain on the menu”.
If you sensibly start with a communication brief, you will have already listed the key points in the Reasons to Buy-In section. But if you’re rewriting an existing piece, then you extract and list all the key points mentioned in the existing draft. Either way, here are the three stages in designing and building a strong back bone for your story:
To avoid the stain in the menu effect, the key points must follow logically from one point to the next. This can be sequential (a, b, c …) cause and effect (this leads to that leads to this …) or in order of importance (inverted pyramid style). Most of the time it’s cause and effect, like in the following example of a blog post on Bob Massey visiting Australia to give a talk on Life After Fossil Fuels: Toward a Low Carbon Economy.
Listing all the facts, stats, virtues, points:
You might find that some of the key points are not relevant to the story you have come up with. Or perhaps some key points are closely related and therefore can be merged into one key point. It’s not unusual to start off with 10 key points and shortlist them down to five or six — depending on the story or word count limit or time.
You’ve got to be very logical here, and write to the delicate cognitive processes of the reader. Point #1 below is the whole reason for the post, so it makes sense to start off with Bob’s arrival to Oz. Then we need to know why he does what he does, so Points # 2 and #3 (interrelated) explain that clearly, showing us the driving force behind his exceptional ability to bring opposing forces onto the same page. This is demonstrated with Points # 5, #6, #7 and #8, all of which are set up by Point #4 which packages them into the idea of “ground-breaking coalitions”. Then Point #9 makes a nice summary by quoting an expert on the subject we all know and love.
It pays to make time at the beginning of the drafting stage listing, organising and shaping the parts that make up the narrative structure. You not only ensure a strong back bone to your story, you also save a lot of post-draft time editing, revising, rewriting and explaining to others what it is you’re saying to mean, and meaning to say. Narrative structure, better known as “narrative logic” at the Copywriting in Action Online School, is covered and put into practice in sessions 4 and 5 of the copywriting course.
Meanwhile, here’s the final draft of the Bob Massie blog post written for 350.Org:
¹ The Ten Principles of Clear Writing:
Keep sentences short
Prefer the simple to the complex
Prefer the familiar word
Avoid unnecessary words
Put action in your verbs
Write like you talk
Use terms your reader can picture
Tie in with your reader’s experience
Make full use of variety
Write to express, not impress