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Compartmentalize

Posted on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at 11:50 PM

How to make the process easier to write, edit, and read when dealing with a topic with multiple and complex subtopics.

By Peter Jacobi

We return to an examination of structure, finding and using one that makes your story take form.

The much-used inverted pyramid or news story structure often won't work: that is, moving from the most important fact in the coverage of a story to the least. Nope, for what you're doing.

The chronology or direct narrative often won't work: that is, telling a story from its origin to conclusion. Nope, for what you're doing.

Sometimes, you must deal with a story that contains multiple aspects, during the writing of which you face a complex task: How do I put these related but distinctly different parts of the project together? It is all one topic, but the elements, the portions, require separate handling.

The answer is a structure, a design, an editorial architecture I call compartmentalization.

It works this way: It compartmentalizes, and it is a glorious and simplifying approach to solving the issue of factual multiplicity within a single topic. Think of it as a way of using division and ordering, of giving the reader pieces within a piece, a number of related items within one whole.

The result will ease your work as writer, your work as editor, and the work of the reader, whose task of reading is thereby both facilitated and made more agreeable, even pleasurable.

Clarify and Organize

Since I'm writing this column in Bloomington, the Indiana version of a shared city name (with Illinois and Minnesota), let me take that town as a subject, say, for a travel publication. You need, in devising a story about Bloomington, first to clarify in your mind the totality of the coverage and approach you plan. And you must create that super-structure which I've written of a number of times: providing a beginning or lead; then a thesis, summarizing what you're writing about; then adding the body, into which you expand on the lead and thesis and explore your topic in your chosen depth; and, finally, offering an end with something you want the reader to remember.

Compartmentalize the Subject

For this column, I'm concerned with part three, the body. That's where you give your readers the package of chosen information in the best, most usable, most understandable, most palatable way. That's where you compartmentalize the subject of Bloomington.

What is Bloomington, you remind yourself. You create a list: a town that deserves its name because of the profusion of blooms from late winter or early spring into late fall; a beautifully designed place at the edge of southern Indiana's hilly region where folks love to cycle and hike and run; a center for shopping and dining (regionally, nationally, and internationally) that easily leads you to the hilly tourist spot of Indiana's little Nashville and Indiana's Columbus, a world-respected architectural showplace; an important home for businesses and conferences; a center for artists and the arts and museums and people from all over the world; and -- of course -- it is home to Indiana University, a major, full-scale educational institution of stature, the academic home for developmental science and technology, for learning in depth and breadth, for anthropology to informatics to zoology, for the arts that enrich not only the varying residents of the campus but all who populate the region we call south-central Indiana and up and down from there, to Indianapolis and Louisville and Chicago.

How, for goodness sake, does one put that together?

You compartmentalize. That's what.

Zoom In on the Lead

You've found an appropriate highlight zooming in on a catchy aspect of Bloomington for your lead. Your thesis introduces the multifaceted nature of the community. And then, in an order of your choosing, you address each of the subjects mentioned above, perhaps in the same order, perhaps otherwise.

Highlight Each Subtopic

But the natural beauty of Bloomington is attended to in a section: the way of life there, the opportunities for visitors to enjoy shopping and dining and making side trips, the cultural high spots in the town, the university and all it has contributed in making Bloomington what it is: a university town. Each subtopic of the topic gets its proper due.

Work with a Plan

The writing of such a piece becomes so much easier if you work with a plan. The editing of such a piece and the placement of it in a publication becomes easier because the writer's compartmentalizing has paved the way for you, as editor, to offer a complementing design, with subheads or other visual pauses. And your reader is more likely to peruse from start to finish, be assured.

Another Compartmentalize Example

Here is another example, in briefer discussion, of a different kind of story. You've attended a four- or five-day conference of significance, during which much of potential reader interest happened. How do you break that up? Again, you compartmentalize.

You might begin your story with an actual portion of the conference, say, the keynote address, handling that as you would a speech story, from most vital point spoken of at the start down to lesser but still includable information. You interrupt the speech coverage pretty close to the top to let your reader know that the conference was goodies-filled and the speech just one of the highlights, then returning to complete the speech coverage.

Then, you remind the reader of what you mentioned above about the scope of the conference, and you write that the conference was generous with a calendar of notable events. That's your bridge to compartmentalization, which might be handled in chronological form or thematic, full-bodied or selective. But in compartments you turn to other highlights about which you believe your readers should be informed.

Again, you've made the process easier in the writing, editing, and reading. Compartmentalization is useful. Use it.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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