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Structure 101: It’s All About the Reader

Without structure our lives would be chaos. So would all types of writing, though I’ll bet you’ve never finished reading an essay, a short story or a novel and said, “Wow, that was wonderfully structured.”

Structure in writing is order. It’s the way the article or story is organized, the way the author puts the pieces together. Readers usually don’t notice writing structure. As a writer, that’s the way you want to keep it.

My first experience with writing structure came in fifth grade when our teacher asked the class to write one page about our summer vacation.

This was our first year using 8.5 x 11” notebook paper rather than a Big Chief tablet, and boy oh boy, did we think we were hot stuff. Sssss.

Mrs. Weddell told us to start writing inside the dark red vertical line on the left side of the sheet, which was 1” from the edge, and to stop writing at the paler red vertical line on the right side, which was 1” from that edge. Within those red lines were 25 horizontal blue lines we could fill up with all the fun we’d had over the summer.

“But wait. That’s formatting,” you’re thinking. “What does that have to do with structure?” More than you think. Read on.

The primary function of formatting is to make what you’ve written easy for readers to access, meaning to read and understand. That’s also the primary function of writing structure. A secondary function is conformity. So when we open a book, a newspaper, or a magazine, we know what we’re getting by the way the material is presented.

Margins are not arbitrary—they establish a line length that’s the most comfortable for the human eye to read. That applies to everything that’s printed: newspapers, magazines, books published in hardcover, trade, and paperback. Even Kindles and iPads.  

Thanks to desktop publishing, which gave us programs like InDesign, what you see in print preview or on a typed page is pretty much the way that page will look in a printed book or magazine. Editors know that. Try sending them a crappy looking manuscript—10-point font, margins all over the place, a paragraph indent you need a magnifying glass to find—at your peril.

Editors and agents in New York are constantly reading submissions. On the bus or train going to and from work, all day in the office, on evenings and weekends.

Why do you need to know that? Because the line length on an 8.5 x 11” sheet of paper is longer than the 50 to 60 characters the human eye can comfortably read. The first line of this paragraph is 54 characters without spaces. With spaces it’s 68. Almost 10 characters past the comfort zone in this font, which is Bookman Old Style (not the font you’re reading this post in, but in the document I submitted to IFW).

Proportional fonts can either squeeze letters together or spread them apart to fit the line. One is about as bad as the other. Over time, reading lines that are too long, full of scrunched up letters or letters with gaps between them creates eye strain.

Imagine reading a 300-page double-spaced manuscript with 25 lines per page. That’s 7,500 lines total. What if 5,000 of them are almost 10 characters longer than it’s comfortable for your eyes to read? Imagine doing that all day, every day. Now imagine opening a single-spaced manuscript with justified margins in 10-point Courier New.


Editors and agents form a first impression of your work when he or she opens your email attachment or removes your manuscript from its envelope. Here’s what they expect to see:

  • Double-spacing, 1” square, aligned left margins, a header that contains your name, the title of your submission and page numbers
  • A clear 5-space indent for every new paragraph
  • A crisp, dark 12-point font
  • Correct spelling
  • Correct punctuation
  • Complete sentences and varied structure

When those elements are present it sends a strong message: I am a professional. I have studied my craft. I understand what you want, and I am prepared to deliver it, beginning with a smooth and comfortable reading experience.

Word can take care of the first 3 elements for you in a few clicks of the mouse. The other three are up to you. You don’t need a degree in English, but if you want to be a published author you need to know the fundamentals of grammar.

There are dictionaries for people who can’t spell. Check Amazon, or Google “bad spellers dictionary”. Do you know when to use double quotation marks and when to use single quotation marks? If not, read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. What’s the difference between a run-on sentence and a sentence fragment? No clue? If you’re an IFW student, you have lots of helpful Pointers from the Pros on mechanics available to you on the IFW website.

If you go here you’ll find a good online tutorial about sentences and how to construct them like a pro. And for fun, a 282-word sentence written by novelist Williams H. Gass.

Follow the 6 points above for everything you write—even your first drafts—and perfect formatting and spot on structure will become second nature. You’ll turn out pages that are pleasing to the eye and provide a comfy cozy reading experience without even thinking about it.

Next week we’ll talk about nonfiction and a pyramid that stands on its head. Pretty neat trick if you’re a pyramid. 

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Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”

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