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Crafting the Bones, Part II

Dr. Rudolph Flesch, a staunch advocate of writing with purpose, advised in his best-selling How to Write Better that “the main thing to consider is your purpose in writing: Why are you sitting down to write?” To which E.B. White tartly answered, “Because, sir, it is more comfortable than standing up.”
~Mitchell Ivers, The Random House Guide to Good Writing

Yesterday I suggested you move forward through your paragraph, scene, and story structure in a purposeful way. Yet we all know that writing is also an act of discovery. What if you’ve completed your first draft and you still aren’t sure what you’re trying to say?

I believe in the power of first draft writing, so here’s a technique to let it speak to you. (You’ll want to apply this to a short work or the opening to a longer one.) This may seem laborious, but with your word processor’s cut and paste feature, it doesn’t take as long as you might think.
  1. First, remove your sentences from their paragraphs and list them—out of context, you’ll see them with new eyes.
  2. Pull some keywords from your prose that suggest points you’d like to make and group the sentences beneath them into like subjects. You might be surprised at what you see: how much reiteration you used to force yourself back on track, or disparate subjects that were the result of flailing around for your true material. Say you meant to write a memoir essay about autumn, but when deconstructing the piece you find you ended up making 12 major points tied to pumpkins and only one about the chill in the air and the colorful leaves. Maybe your piece isn’t about autumn after all, but about pumpkins. Your subconscious may have brought forth pumpkins for a reason, so take some time to explore any imagery on which you can capitalize.
  3. Organize the keywords in a way that makes sense—and a story should start to emerge.
Now that you know what you want to say, you need to decide the best way to say it. What must the reader know first, before moving on? What makes sense to tell him next? What do you want your reader to conclude?

Keep these questions in mind as you apply an outline to the remaining material from the previous three steps, grouping and ordering your sentences beneath related keywords. You might find that one long sentence belongs in two or even three categories—in this step, shorten your sentences. This will make clear what is pertinent and what isn’t; good corrections can be made at this point. You might need to weed out what isn’t necessary, but you also might find you left out a whole section of relevant argument needed to balance or complete your piece. Once you’ve said what you want to say, now figure out ways to show it—through scenes in the case of fiction, or supporting facts and anecdotes in the case of nonfiction. This applied structure will infuse the skeleton of your piece with a healthy dose of calcium.

When employed purposefully, drifting off-track can be quite funny. But it will work as humor only if the piece has a spine strong enough to support its rambling appendages. Otherwise, the reader may simply be laughing at your convoluted attempt to enlighten—and you don’t want that, now, do you? You only want your reader to laugh if you’ve told him to—while you’ve got him in the palm of your hand, well supported by the bones of your writing.

Kathryn Craft is a free-lance editor at, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. She indulged her interest in muscles and bones at Miami University (OH), where she earned a B.S. in Biology Education with a dance minor, and then a master's in Health and Physical Education.

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  1. Interesting approach to organizing points. Might be a useful tool for getting back on track for people who are more methodical than I am, but I prefer to keep on writing during the first draft.

  2. The technique of looking at sentences individually is powerful and effective. I just took an intensive Donald Maass workshop where I learned to pay more attention to a sentence-by-sentence analysis of tension (aimed primarily at mystery and thriller writers).

    Nice post with some excellent suggestions, Kathryn.

  3. I'm not too taken with outlines. I guess I'm a generally unorganized type. I try to conform when necessary and have no choice. (g)

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Like Morgan, I'm not a great fan of formal outlines. General outlines, however, provide a map for a story's direction; in the first one or two chapters, this is especially important. Even more essential, I believe, are the character sketches. They must be robust, complete, sometimes stretching back two, three, or more generations. Details that the reader never sees must be clearly etched in the writer's mind so the character always remains true to self, no matter what circumstances are encountered.

    How does this information apply to Kathryn's blog. Whenever a scene isn't working or a character's actions or behavior don't "feel right," applying her three points and pulling out the appropriate character sketch(es) may solve the problem.

    Whether our "organization" is in our heads or on paper (hard drive), it must exist someplace. Having said that, I don't believe her suggestions apply only to the first draft. At least for fiction writers, they may have even greater application during the self-editing process.

    Good food for thought, Kathryn. Thank you for sharing.

  5. It's interesting to hear these comments--suggesting some organization can really raise a creative person's hackles! I can relate, because I too am a seat-of-the-pants writer.

    But at some point, in order to communicate effectively, you have to ask yourself: what have all these words added up to? Especially if, like me, you write in order to discover.

    In this post I am simply suggesting that it's not too late to apply organization after you have blurted the material onto the page. In fact, because we writers communicate so much subconsciously, this extra time spent sorting through your words may reveal your work's greatest lessons.

    Thanks for your comments!

  6. I'm a big fan of using spider diagrams to plan what I'm going to write and how my points will fit together. But this is a good idea for those occasions where I just start writing without planning.

  7. Interesting. I'll keep this in mind in my edits. I tend to write a first draft chapter. Then next day I edit the first draft and write the next chapter. Sort of leapfrogging. Helps the writing but not necessarily the plotting.

  8. I'm with Elle - I'm a mindmapper and do all outlining there first. I even put my to-do lists into mindmap format. LOL. It was a big thrill to me to find Tony Buzan, the kind of mindmapping, on the Internet after at least 30 years of using his techniques. Maybe I should do a post about mindmapping soon. What do you think?


  9. Again, thank you, Kathryn. I have a difficult time with formal outlines at the beginning of a project. I like to just write. However, when into my rewriting, I can see these 3 points helping tremendously.
    I am so thankful for you and your insight.


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