IN AN ERA saturated with textual content claiming to make sense of the world’s complexity, we must face the reality: an enormous amount of wealth pours into writing that is very hard to read. A great deal of mainstream analysis is short but shallow, while much more is so long and meandering as to ultimately bury its own substance. High quality intellectual output is all too often wasted on its potential public not because it is too sophisticated or poorly written, but simply for lack of structure. Sound research, powerful ideas and a fluid style will inevitably invite a public snub (or brutal rewriting) if the text is not organized to engage its audience.
Structure is as critical to effective delivery as it is elusive. The concept refers to the layout of the various components of a text. It goes beyond the notion of outline: a document may have subtitles and yet be devoid of structure, and vice versa. Structure defines a coherent, well-articulated argument very much like a skeleton determines a body, making it so much more than a pile of body parts. It flows from two processes: the selection, among all the elements that could possibly go into a text, of those that are most relevant to the effect an author wants to produce on his or her readership; and the arrangement of these components to maximize the desired effect. It is an equivalent of a painting’s composition.
One reason why the concept evades many authors of analytic prose is that there is no straightforward, one-size-fits-all formula. Structure is a case-by-case, iterative determination that typically occurs late in the process, and usually involves significant help. In fact, the reasons for a particular structure often become clear only in hindsight, once the text exists and produces the effects we were intuiting. Good, analytic editors impulsively move things around, usually without intellectualizing, systematizing and explaining the process. Here is a stab at doing so.
Finding the right fit
A crucial part of drafting, editing and rewriting is reversing the original logic of the research that produced the analysis. Indeed, a researcher will pursue a what-how-why reasoning, starting off with a general topic (what), deciphering its internal mechanisms (how), and drawing conclusions on the underlying meaning (why). A well-structured piece will do the opposite: first it puts up its raison d’etre, stressing the importance of the subject-matter (why); then it delves into a breakdown of arguments reconstructing a complete analysis (how); finally, it wraps up by revealing what the topic was fundamentally about (what). No wonder authors often feel that their work, when thoroughly edited, was somewhat turned on its head.
Thinking through the stuff of a publication helps sketch the structure early on in the process. In analytic writing, the string of sentences and paragraphs is a sequencing of essential facts (indispensable for readers to grasp the topic’s outlines), experiences by proxy (through which the author makes his audience share in what he or she observed firsthand) and conceptual arguments (imperative to making sense of it all). A text that is easy to edit contains such components in the right amount, balance and order; a text that is delightful to read is rich in the above, while staying simple in style and structure.
To sketch a piece’s structure, you may need to lay out, on a wall or in a spreadsheet, all items relevant to the categories spelled out above: facts, themselves broken down into hard data sets, chronological series, biographies, maps and so on; narratives, distributed in subcategories such as citations, the analyses of others, or even rumors; observations, telling scenes and revealing anecdotes; arguments, namely your own analysis about how things work, what is important and why; and, finally, the fundamental verities that seem to lie at the backdrop, making the whole research process worthwhile.
From there, you must choose among the many, creative options for organizing your writing, according to what suits best your particular material and goals. Synaps publications, for instance, display a variety of structures: an emotional crescendo, as What the war on terror looks like takes you down the hellhole of Northern Iraq; The Syrian trauma’s zoom-out from individual experience to global consequences; layered complexity ending in a simple, clear-cut, ominous outcome, in Abracada… broke; or The cocoon’s life cycle. A faithful structure heeds the nature of the topic.
For novelists or journalists invested in nonfiction storytelling, thinking through a text’s structure before drafting it is almost second nature. What makes it more elusive to analytic writers is that the notion simply isn’t taught. “Analytic writing” goes, furthermore, without curricula, self-help books and prizes—without a recognizable name, even. As such, the state of the art is predictably suboptimal.
Academic and technocratic authors tend to ignore the issue of structure entirely, as a distraction, if not a hazardous flirt with unscientific writing. They prefer a strict, conventional outline distributing information and analysis into topical sections, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. An establishment like the French Institute for Political Studies teaches generations of intellectuals to fit their thinking, uncritically, into a two section/two subsection framework, for reasons everyone seems to take for granted. Western academia now banishes any thesis that fails to start with a mind-numbing literature review, as if related references could not possibly demonstrate their relevance in the body of analysis itself. By contrast, the masterpieces that founded most scientific disciplines were beautifully written; in fact, they would not have gained prominence in the first place were it not for their narrative—alongside their didactic—value.
The imperative of narration
Whether we like it or not, narration sits at the heart of compelling analytic writing. This is hardly surprising, given that narration is integral to much of what we do. Indeed, it boils down to a familiar sequence that involves an opening, a succession of developments creating an emotional buildup and sense of anticipation, and a recognizable ending bringing the process to a close. This basic framework applies to more aspects of our experience than we tend to assume: novels and movies of course, but also musical performances and spectator sports, flirting, and most other things from the rise and fall of empires to the progression of occurrences that we would qualify as “a great meal” or “a good day.” Life itself, in a sense, follows the same arc; this may explain why we are so sensitive to it, and therefore why it weaves itself into so many facets of our daily routines.
Fictional and nonfictional storytelling, which for generations have refined and theorized the art of narration, contain important lessons for analytic writing. As Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, aptly points out, their structure typically revolves around the following sequence: exposition (of the essential traits of a central character); complication (meaning the early development that sets off a series of captivating events); escalating action (and the emotional ups and downs that flow from it); climax (the dramatic outcome of that build up); and resolution (which may be a fatal denouement, a happy ending, or simply an enriched form of appeasement). This basic construct underpins, in more or less subtle ways, virtually all stories we know.
Analytic writing follows a remarkably similar progression, although its components differ from storytelling per se. Character is, to a large extent, replaced by topic—the issue that will gradually gain in depth as you reveal its many, often contradictory facets. Complication can come in the form of what academics describe as a “research question,” or any other device that gives the topic the twist that reveals its interest and its complexity. Analysis, rather than action, drives the reading experience, and to propel the reader it must be just as dynamic. The climax marks the highpoint in your string of arguments—the moment when, having brought your readers to understand the various components of your exploration, you nail in your “thesis”—the definite take you were articulating, bit by bit, all along. Resolution combines a sense of completion and a new opening, onto some broader truth nested in a telling anecdote or an abstract, but evocative, conclusion.
Another way of putting it involves the “itinerary metaphor” used elsewhere on this platform: the author, very much like a guide on a tour, will pick his or her readers up wherever they happen to be, and take them step by step to where he or she wants to leave them, while bringing to life interesting sights, facts, and artefacts along the way. The tour has a general theme, which the guide will start by making accessible and intriguing. He or she will then go through a series of explanations and illustrations, crafted to retain the audience’s attention. The visit will culminate shortly before parting ways. The circuit is a narrative journey that leads the public, in principle at least, down the most efficient path from introduction to deeper understanding.
Three golden rules
From the public’s perspective—to which the wise author will defer—even analytic writing will be gripping if it abides by three, golden rules: shape, rhythm, resonance.
The shape is the “why” of your analysis: although any topic is infinite by nature, your purpose is to shed light on one, particularly significant corner of it. Even this doesn’t happen all at once: your argument will only gradually take shape. Meanwhile, the reader formulates expectations and asks him or herself, consciously or not, the right questions: why does this concern me? Where are the real problems? How do things work? Where does all this lead? And what can I make of this, myself? The facets of your analysis form an image in the reader’s brain, increasingly sophisticated, illuminating, complete. Because it promises a climax through its own completion, analysis creates suspense and powers the narration. Indeed, wrapping our minds around a complex subject procures immense satisfaction. A reader left on a full, vivid, clear and compelling picture will feel privileged with a rare, fulfilling reading experience.
The difficulty in defining the shape of your analysis lies in what you leave out. A statue that retains all the stone it could potentially use is a rock. Analytic writing that strives to say everything the author knows about a topic is a bad encyclopedia. A text, to be respectful of its readership, must both meticulously include everything the audience needs to follow the progression and delete anything superfluous, ruthlessly.
Rhythm keeps up the momentum throughout the reading experience, and equates with the “how” mentioned above. Analytic arguments give the beat, but such drumming is interspaced with what gives the text some melody: supporting facts and evidence, citations (characters even, if need be), metaphors, descriptive scenes, and logical transitions. These notes may be composed in an oft-repeated, simple arrangement, such as argument-proof-nuance-transition. Or they may alternate between tangible anecdotes and conceptual thinking, running up and down the spectrum of human emotions and intellectual abstraction.
Resonance is, almost by definition, what is least visible and most powerful within a text. The text’s ability to echo within its readership depends on a touch of universal—the “what”—that is best written between the lines. In the Synaps model, bringing a grassroots perspective to the surface is an important element of resonance; not unlike fiction or narrative nonfiction, it gives the reader the opportunity to experience a problem in vibrant, relatable terms. Our researchers’ extensive, immersive fieldwork also transpires through their writing; although we prefer third person and comply with the relatively disembodied style relevant to analytic writing, the goal is to imbue that writing with vital forms of human empathy and civic engagement. In more literary prose, this is called “voice”—without which a dry document will struggle to achieve connection.
Resonance also pulses from another source, which is the underlying theme behind the overall argument. Analytic writing, like storytelling, taps into universal leitmotivs, both profound and banal. Spellbinding reads have a knack for circling back to eternal truths: a paper on youth cooptation within Hizbollah highlights mechanisms applicable to most organizations, from sects to trade unions; Lebanon’s economic antics tell a tale of elite predation that has spared no part of the globe; and unpacking the traumatic effect of war on Syrians sheds unexpected light on a broadly-felt, intense and growing sense of confusion worldwide. If analytic writing is indeed to help us navigate an era of change, it must ambition to pose, and hopefully answer, essential questions.
As always, practice makes perfect, through grueling back and forth with capable editors. The editing and rewriting of texts certainly is a frustrating and painful process, but without it, the pain and frustration are just handed down to the reader. The editor is a buffer, whose role is to ensure that your audience is not landed with chores—clarifying the arguments, teasing out relevant data, cutting unnecessary detail, checking the spelling, improving the flow and so on—that are none of its business, and can therefore focus on the substance. People who cannot stand being edited should know better: the public will not edit them either; more likely, it will edit them out.
Enjoy the occasional, thoughtful boost to your productivity!
Illustration credits: Map of Lewis and Clark’s expedition by Wikipedia; Itinerary of Matthew Paris by Flickr; Map of the Royal itinerary in metropolitan Winnipeg by Flickr; Detailed itinerary map of great Japan by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.