How to “Study the Form”

You hear all kinds of slogans at writers’ conferences. “Show, don’t tell.” “Write what you know.” “You learn how to write by rewriting.”

Those are typically understood fairly quickly. But one that puzzled me for a bit was “Study the form.” Huh? Even though I attended three major conferences the first year after God called me to write, I never could find a workshop that explained what that meant.

And then I started teaching high school English and had to figure out how to coach young people to emulate good writing form. Often people say, “Just write. Just get it down on paper.” However, when we understand the form of a genre and the ebb and flow of a chapter, article, devotion, or Bible study, we then can write more quickly and efficiently, avoiding painful edits down the road.

Here is a process I use and teach.

First, find a mentor book (or article, devotion, Bible study etc.). For example, if you want to write a Christian living book, find one on your shelves that you believe is a standout—in terms of content and structure. As a mentor would, it can inform you about how to structure yours.

Second, study the title and subtitle. What is appealing to you about them? Typically, a title is short and catchy, and the subtitle offers significant promise to the reader. Consider how your title and subtitle could draw a reader with a clever title and true felt need(s).

Third, study the table of contents.

  • Are there sections for the chapters? How are those sections titled? Do you see a thematic thread? What is that thread? Would sections work for your book? If so, what could those sections be titled, and what kind of thematic thread could you create?
  • How are the chapters titled? Do you see a pattern there? Is the tone serious or clever or even funny? How do the chapter titles evolve from a problem through a process to that promise that the title/subtitle offered? It can be argued every book is an argument that guides the reader from a point of pain through a problem-solving process. Think of ideas you have for chapter titles; organize them in a similar structure: problem(s) à process à place of healing or greater understanding.
  • Is there extra material other than the regular chapters, to include a dedication (at the beginning or at the end?), foreword, introduction, study guide, appendices? What do these offer for the reader? Can you think of someone to write a foreword for you? How might you include some of that extra content?

Fourth, do the word math. Sometimes I get resistance here, but I’ve found it helpful for me when I’m tackling a new genre form to get a sense of overall balance to a book. Here’s a counting process.

  • How many chapters are there? As you’re planning your book, keep in mind that chapters are running shorter as people’s attention span grows shorter.
  • How many words are in a chapter? Two methods can help. One is to divide the book by the number of chapters I’ve already titled. For example, if my proposed Christian living book is going to be about 48,000 words and if I have sixteen chapters, each chapter will be about three thousand words (counting the chapter’s study questions, end notes, and other possible special features). A second approach to word math is to count the words in the chapter of a mentor book.
  • How many sections do you find in a typical chapter? For the last Christian living books I’ve written the editors have wanted at least three headings in a chapter after the initial anecdote. Three headings lend themselves to three major process pieces for a chapter—just as your pastor may have a three-point sermon. If, like me, you can’t sit long, you can think of chapters as four chunks: the anecdote and then three teaching pieces; writing one a day means you can write nearly two chapters in a week.
  • How many words are in each of those sections? You can count them or do simple division to figure out a sense of pacing.

Lastly, notice how the writer develops the thematic content for the chapter. Instead of noticing what the writer is SAYING, examine what the writer is DOING.

  • What is the balance between personal anecdote and teaching content? One editor told me that she believes there should be a balance of about one-third personal anecdote to two-thirds teaching content. The reader deserves to hear more than our story. Yes, that’s a good showing technique, but we also owe the reader the hard work of teaching what God’s Word says about our subject.
  • How does the writer develop an ebb and flow of paragraphs, sentences, and sentence transitions? Notice the following:
    • How does the writer offer an idea (a teaching concept, an argument)?
    • How is that idea explained?
    • How is scripture introduced and explained?
    • How are examples drawn in?
    • How are those examples tied to the original idea?
  • In other words, how are good paragraphs written and tied together? Liz Heaney, my editor for four of my books on prayer, taught me to explain what something means. We don’t just plop scripture into text and make the reader figure out its context or application. We explain what it means. And then we challenge ourselves to offer another way to look at the concept by bringing in additional ideas. These can certainly be others’ ideas (with complete citations) and quotes and analogies, but it’s our responsibility not to make a book a research paper. We want to create original ideas that sync soundly with the biblical text.

While I’ve used the example of a Christian living book in my process, you can also apply this same kind of analysis to other genres, including fiction. Pick up your new favorite novel. Notice how the writer offers action, dialogue, internal dialogue, and description. I have my writing students use colored markers to distinguish between the different kinds of language in a chapter.

Noticing what a writer is DOING helps us understand what it means to study the form and then apply it as we try something new.

About Janet McHenry 1 Article
Janet McHenry is the author of 24 traditionally published books—six on prayer, including the bestselling PrayerWalk and her newest, The Complete Guide to the Prayers of Jesus. The creator of an online Teachable course called Prayer School, she is also a writing coach and the host of the Sierra Valley Writers Retreat, held several times a year. She and her husband Craig have lived in the Sierra Valley for the last forty years, where he is a rancher and where they raised their four kids. She loves connecting with other writers.

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