How to Structure Your Articles Using Six Common Writing Patterns

Non-fiction writing practices distilled from the pages of Harvard Business Review

Matt Lewin
Mar 3 · 8 min read
Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Non-fiction writing, much like fiction, requires structure to be effective.

In fiction, the most common structure is the three-act narrative. Act 1 is the setup where the characters and the setting are introduced. Act 2 is the midpoint where the characters encounter an incident or problem. Act 3 is the resolution where the plot reaches its climax, and the story concludes.

The three-part structure works because it’s how our minds work. To engage in a story, we need first to understand the characters and the premise of the story. This prepares us to connect with the plot revealed in the second act, which sets up the climax and, ultimately, the story’s resolution.

Non-fiction writing isn’t much different. Whether you’re writing about business, self-help, or social issues, a three-part structure works because it appeals to our logical mind. The difference is what each part contains.

To see how great non-fiction writing is structured, I looked at issues of Harvard Business Review — one of the world’s most prestigious business publications. The nice thing about this publication is the “In Brief” section beside each article. It provides a succinct, three-part breakdown of the piece.

Based on this review, I noted six of the simplest and most effective ways to structure your articles so that your readers leave satisfied. If you’re ever stuck for ideas, try one of these simple writing patterns.

1. The Problem — Why It Happens — The Solution

This is probably the most common article structure. And for good reason — it’s the most logical.

Start by describing a problem to be solved. This could be stated outright or illustrated through a story. Either way, focus on a problem that you or others have struggled with and lacks an obvious solution.

Next, move to the causes of the problem. Focus on why the problem persists and describe the underlying forces that perpetuate it. Part one was about the what of the problem; this part focuses on the why.

Finally, present your solution. So far, you’ve described the problem and its underlying causes; now reveal your insight. Present it as a potential solution to this thorny issue.

The power of this structure is its intuitiveness. It’s strictly logical. When presented with a problem, people naturally want to understand why it happens and then how to solve it. It plays into our innate curiosity.

Example

Note — the following example summarizes the structure of this published article.

The Problem — Entrepreneurs typically go with their first feasible go-to-market strategy in their rush to release their products to consumers. They often lose out to late entrants who hone their strategy more carefully.

Why it Happens — Startups are afraid that delaying their products’ release will lead to a missed opportunity. They fail to consider alternative, possibly superior go-to-market strategies properly.

The Solution — Entrepreneurs can avoid a go-to-market misstep by evaluating multiple strategies that follow different approaches in terms of customers, technologies, and messaging. The right move is then to select one that aligns most closely with their values.

2. The New Environment — The Changing Behavior — The Response

Change is always a great writing topic. Whether you’re discussing emerging trends, new technology, developing social movements — the theme of change appeals to our innate desire to better understand the world around us.

If change is your central idea, focus your writing on how the change impacts the reader.

Open with a description of the new environment. This should depict a changing world. A future where a recent phenomenon has taken effect and society has changed as a result.

Next, explain how this trend has changed the behavior of those impacted. Focus on the material impact it has on people’s lives and how tomorrow is significantly different than today.

Finally, explain how people, organizations, or governments should respond to this changing dynamic. Specifically, focus on how these parties should alter what they currently do to adjust to tomorrow’s new environment.

This structure appeals to a reader’s interest in how industrial or societal change could affect them. The best articles describe the impact of the change and illustrate how to cope — or even thrive — in the future.

Example

Note — the following example summarizes the structure of this published article.

The New Environment — Smart assistants like Siri and Alexa are fundamentally altering the customer journey, particularly how consumers hear about and subsequently interact with a brand before they commit to purchasing.

The Changing Behavior — As smart assistants become more in-tune with a customer’s buying habits, people will trust their recommendations more and be more likely to defer routine buying decisions to these assistants.

The Response — In the future, it will be imperative for businesses to understand the dynamics of AI-driven recommendations and focus on gaining preferential access to leading smart assistant platforms.

3. The Ambition — The Challenges — The Solution

This structure is similar to structure #1 but instead frames the problem in a more aspirational light — as an ambition.

Start by describing an aspiration that you, other people, or society might have. The idea is to paint a compelling picture of the future where your subject has achieved something consequential.

Next, document the challenges or barriers that stand in the way of this ambition. Describe how these barriers make achieving your dreams difficult or how these challenges thwarted those who made previous attempts.

Finish by describing your solution to these challenges. Make your advice explicit. Explain how your recommendations help the reader overcome the challenges. Also, define what it would take to implement your solution. Make the reader understand the effort or resources involved.

This format educates readers on the real-world challenges associated with an ambitious proposition and helps navigate the challenges.

Example

Note — the following example summarizes the structure of this published article.

The Ambition — Many businesses aspire to expand agile project methodologies to the whole organization and realize the benefits of this approach at the enterprise level.

The Challenges — Significant barriers to scaling agile include: dealing with administrative red-tape, business functions that are ill-suited to agile teams, and resistance to change.

The Solution — Take a practical and measured approach and set priorities that balance risk with opportunity. Start slow but move deliberately as you expand the agile footprint. Where a fully agile approach isn’t a fit, at a minimum, adopt an agile mindset that prioritizes quick wins.

4. The Issue — The Research — The Findings

Articles that explain the research behind an important or contentious issue are always of interest. People value evidence as a rule, and pieces that connect a known issue to new findings can be especially engaging.

Begin your article by presenting the issue. The issue should describe a trend, situation, or observed phenomenon that readers desire to understand better. It should create a sense of intrigue around why the condition persists and why it’s worthy of investigation.

Next, present the latest research into the issue. What was studied, specifically? Who conducted the study? When and where was it done? Give enough information for the reader to understand the scope and scale of the research.

Lastly, review the findings of the research. This is the payoff. What did the researchers discover about the issue? Was it new and groundbreaking or merely an incremental advancement in the knowledge base. Focus on how the findings alter our perception of the issue and how that applies to the current environment or society.

This format informs readers of new developments or insights about a known issue. The more you can connect the findings to your reader’s interests, the better.

Example

Note — the following example summarizes the structure of this published article.

The Issue — The early days of a CEOs tenure often focus on quick wins and enabling change. Some survive this phase, and some don’t. Those that do find themselves having to switch gears and focus on navigating this change. But many struggle to make the switch.

The Research — Researchers looked at CEOs who had successfully transitioned from early change agent to incumbent leader. They examined what these leaders had in common and attempted to understand common themes in their leadership style.

The Findings — The successful CEOs were strong at breaking down organizational barriers, building up their credibility, and nurturing talent. They focused on building a culture that reinforced their early change activities.

5. The Belief — The Truth — Why It Matters

Challenging a deeply held belief makes for intriguing reading. While people don’t always like to have their views challenged, your writing will enjoy a tremendous credibility boost if you manage to convince them otherwise.

Start by stating the belief. Be bold and specific. Describe what precisely people believe and why. Discuss the historical underpinnings of these views and the impact on modern culture.

Next, present the truth. Link it directly to principles that underpin the belief. Define the aspects of the belief that this newly revealed truth challenges.

Finish by expanding on the importance of this finding and why it matters in the modern context.

Belief-busting articles appeal to readers that value critical thinking. Even if they’re not convinced, a well-written and researched article of this style can serve as fodder for an interesting conversation or even future writing.

Example

Note — the following example summarizes the structure of this published article.

The Belief — We generally believe that men and women are different not only biologically but also when it comes to personality traits (though there’s debate on this). These differences are what many assume are the root of women’s lagging career achievements.

The Truth — Research has shown that the personality traits that most strongly correspond with career success are essentially the same among men and women.

Why it Matters — The impulse of managers to try to adjust working environments for these differences is flawed — companies need to address the structural and systemic barriers to women’s career growth.

6. The Situation — The Problem — The Better Way

Sometimes you’ll have a writing topic that focuses on a specific problem, but the problem itself requires a lot of backstory before you jump into why it happens. Try this format for those occasions.

When describing the situation, craft a compelling narrative. Tell the story of a person, community, or business and how they arrived at the problem central to your article. Focus on the series of events or single incident that led them to this place and discuss their situation’s historical underpinnings.

From there, elaborate on the problem. Describe it in detail. And then present your solution. Use the approach I described in the first structure.

A story is one of the most effective ways of establishing context. A narrative style draws readers in and makes the problem — and the associated solution — more resonant.

Example

Note — the following example summarizes the structure of this published article.

The Situation — After years of sustained profits, a consumer electronics conglomerate was facing cost pressures due to intense competition from Asian competitors and rising labor costs among European suppliers. Mass layoffs were communicated, leading to widespread anger among staff, public protests, and calls for a boycott. Ultimately, the layoffs hurt the company’s bottom line and reputation more than they saved in costs.

The Problem — The long-term downside of mass layoffs often outweigh the short-term benefits.

The Better Way — A thorough and inclusive change strategy that includes input from employees and prepares them for volatile or lean times can mitigate the jarring impact and negative fallout associated with mass layoffs.

There are countless ways to structure an article, but you won’t stray too far if you stick to one of these tried and tested formats. When you’re stuck for ideas, have a look at the list and pick one off. Or come up with your own variant. The point is to organize your thoughts so that you get from point a to b — with style.

Happy writing!

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Think. Draft. Publish.

Thanks to Brittany Jezouit and Elizabeth Dawber

Matt Lewin

Written by

Management consultant and technology strategist. I write about working life and personal growth. Director at Esri Canada

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Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

Matt Lewin

Written by

Management consultant and technology strategist. I write about working life and personal growth. Director at Esri Canada

Blank Page

Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

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