post cover

Episodes: Structure pants


Emily VanDerWerff

Jul 07 2016

3 min read



The most common mistake I find in thinkpieces around this great internet of ours is that they repeat themselves over and over and over again. They find a way to say the same thing in five or six different ways, slap on an intro and conclusion, then get out. After you've read the thing, you find yourself thinking, Did that say anything?

But writing this sort of thing is monstrously tough. I've farted out an endlessly repetitive thinkpiece before, and every writer I admire or hope to emulate has as well. It's just the nature of the beast in some ways, because sometimes, you have an idea, and it's maybe just that: an idea, not an argument. Or, alternately, it's such a huge notion that it can't really be contained in 1,500 words, so you end up with a mess that's either too short (and only half-argued) or way too long (and incredibly incoherent).

Which is why we're here to talk about structure, because once I started trying to fool myself into having a structure for these sorts of things, they improved dramatically.

Here's how I do it: I open a blank Notepad document (or insert your notes program of choice here) and just quickly sketch out a few words for what I think each section or even each paragraph of the piece is going to have. For an upcoming essay I have trying to delve into the intersection of my personal life with a work of pop culture, I went so far as to just figure out which sections of the essay were going to be personal and which were going to be pop culture, so I'd have more of the latter. (I increasingly think an easy hand on the seasoning with the personal stuff is the only way to handle this.)

So you might end up with something like:

Samantha Bee's latest episode

Samantha Bee vs. John Oliver

The comedy of knowing



Which is more or less the skeleton I used to build out this piece.

Structure isn't necessary for everything, and not even for every thinkpiece. And it can sometimes get you in trouble. (I didn't really crack that big TV deaths essay until I started shredding my initial structure for it.) But I've found that it helps writers automatically focus their thoughts in a way that sharpens their ideas and notions.

I want to talk more about this, but the plane I'm on is landing, and the wifi is disappearing. So I'll be back tomorrow!


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter