Writing: Structure & Style

There's a fundamental difference between engineers and architects: engineers focus on structural integrity, while architects focus on design and appearance. Both are needed to create buildings, roads, and bridges that are attractive and functional.

Every writer is both an engineer and an architect. Without a firm grasp on the fundamentals of writing, an author's output is confusing, sloppy, unreadable; without proper style, it's dry, boring, and difficult.

Structure, contrary to popular opinion, includes but is not limited to grammar. Grammar deals with the rules governing the use of words, phrases, and clauses, and is an essential element of structure. But structure also includes organization and clarity.

Similarly, style is often equated with mere flourish and dismissed as irrelevant. Style, however, is absolutely necessary to produce work that is readable and able to impart ideas and information. It's not only voice: every writer should develop a unique tone, but they should also use language as deftly as possible.

As an engineer, a writer should look first to the structure of his work, whether it's an essay, research paper, short story, or anything else. Just as an engineer gauges materials, surveys land, procures resources, and plans for security, strength, and longevity, writers must understand their topic, know their audience, do research and critical thinking, and keep an eye toward concrete and plain sentences.

In the capacity of architect, writers need to make their ideas understandable, interesting, and entertaining. Most people don't want to live in an ugly house, and most readers don't want to read something cluttered, that hasn't had the sharp corners sanded off, that has no interesting parts, etc. Perfecting one's style makes the difference between writing things people read and writing things no one cares about.

Learning either discipline takes two things: willingness to experiment, and commitment to practice. Experimentation can be dangerous, however. Beginners often skip straight to experimenting before they understand the principles of structure, and their writings lack coherence and originality.

Before they conduct new experiments, scientists become familiar with established knowledge. Otherwise they'll just repeat what's been done, or reach the wrong conclusions. It's the same for writers. You can only bend the rules if you know them already.

Experimentation in writing is NOT synonymous with experimental writing. Many writers assume that to be unique they need to do something no one else has ever done, and their writing becomes innovation for its own sake, and is often meaningless.

This is intolerable. Writing exists to convey meaning, not merely to entertain or for writers to demonstrate their cleverness. When we talk about experimentation in writing, we're talking about a constant effort to find what works.

Practice is a simpler concept. Writers don't improve by waiting for the Composition Faeries to bless them with talent. Even writers with innate talent only get better by writing.....and writing, and writing, and writing. Practice is more important than experiment in learning to write, because you can learn to write through practice alone, but experimentation alone is not a path to competency.

Both practice and experimentation must be accompanied by knowledge and desire. Knowledge informs and helps us; as for desire, no one can give you that. But because every student must write, it's in every student's best interest to cultivate the desire to write well. What we love and know we do best, and what we do best we enjoy. The better you are at writing, and the more you enjoy it, the easier your student days will be.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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