How Structure Creates Depth

Creative energy is like water. It flows, and it follows a path. Often, that path is the one of least resistance; the one that feels natural and easeful. 

If we let our creativity flow unchecked, it can lead us to some new and unusual places. Sometimes, those places are amazing. Sometimes, they're dead ends. Sometimes, they feel like they're barely in the same universe where we started. 

This creative flow can be incredibly valuable when we are exploring new territory as writers. However, if we don't see it for what it is, it can also create some pretty interesting problems in our writing. 

You see, creativity, like water, will flow until it's containedbut only when it's contained will it begin to gain depth. 

If you pour a cup of water on the floor, it will continue to spread out until it meets some sort of resistance—like a wall, or a door, or a piece of furniture. A river without banks will quickly spread out and become a marsh. Likewise, unchecked creativity will spread out until it touches everything in sight.  

The issue with this spreading isn't the exploration or free flow: in fact, that's the beauty of it. But when you want to write in a specific way, about a specific thing, and do it in an effective, engaging, and targeted way, you need to contain your watery, creative energy, and curb its desire to chase after every shiny thought that comes into your head.

In other words, you need to create structure

Water poured into the floor will result in a wide, but very shallow, puddle. But water poured into a bowl, or a vase, or a cup ... that water suddenly has depth. The structure placed around the water allows it to accumulate in a way that makes sense, and keeps the water from touching anything you don't deliberately immerse in it. 

This is the value of structure and planning: the ability to determine where your creative energy flows, what it touches, and how it accumulates. 

Setting deliberate parameters around your writing allows you to build depth for your readers. Instead of dashing off on tangents, your narrative can be corralled into a recognizable format, and that format can be layered to create a learning curve for your readers.  

Stream-of-consciousness writing is a great technique for journaling and exploring concepts in a first draft, because it allows your creative energy to spread out over all of the available terrain. But unless you're applying it as a deliberate literary technique to explore a deep internal point of view in yourself or a character—a la James Joyce or Virginia Woolf—it doesn't work well in writing that is intended for consumption by an audience. In fact, in writing that is intended to be instructional, inspirational,  or results-driven, it can be downright counterproductive. To return to our metaphor, it's the difference between handing your readers a glass of water and trying to give them the puddle on the floor. 


How to give your writing structure

What gives writing structure is planning. When you know ahead of time what you want to say, and how you plan to say it, you are much less likely to have a literary "squirrel!" moment. 

I used to have a LOT of those moments of distraction. They cost me great ideas because before I could complete a thought on the page I was being pulled in another direction, and when I wanted to come back to the original thought, it was long gone. They also cost me time, and (since I'm a professional writer and business owner, and my time is valuable), they cost me money.

I'm not exaggerating here: I once had an article intended to examine the translation of a particular Yoga Sutra morph into a discussion about the way yoga is taught in America. (I also had a short story about a lusty reunion turn into an exploration of addiction in relationships, but that's a topic for another day.) Then, there was the book that petered out in Chapter 3, the multiple stories I gave up on halfway through ... you get the picture. 

My point is, you need to create the glass before you can fill it with water. You need to build the four walls of your house before you try to fill it with furniture! And you need to designate limits around what topics and ideas your creative energy will interact with if you want to keep your writing on track and focused. 

How do you plan your writing? You create an outline!

Yes, that dreaded word again: outlining. But even when you're creating something as simple as a blog post, an outline can keep you on track and make sure that a) you don't waste time on unnecessary or tangential discussions, and b) you say everything that needs to be said so your audience can reap the benefit of your wisdom. 

For articles, blog posts, and other short pieces, your outline might be nothing more than a few lines in your notebook, a sketch to give you the general shape of things. For something more complex, like a book or e-book, you will want to create a more comprehensive structure. (For more on how to do this, see my post, How to Write a Killer Outline For Your Book—And Why You Need to Do It.) You can outline using bullet points, color-coded text, mind maps, post-it notes on your whiteboard ... it doesn't matter how you organize your outline, as long as it keeps you organized! 

These days, I rarely have to deal with the full-on rewrites that characterized my early writing days. Some of this is experience and proficiency gained through thousands of hours of practice, but most of it is simply good planning. 

Thanks for consuming my latest glass of water, friends. It's such a privilege to share these musings with you. Here's to tall drinks and many years of happy writing!

Bryna René Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing, the chief editor for Inspired Living Publishing, and the best-selling author of The Art of Inspiration: An Editor's Guide to Writing Powerful, Effective Inspirational and Personal Development Books. In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create powerful, memorable, successful works. She lives outside of Providence, RI, with her husband, Matthew, and their little Moonbeam, Áine.