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Does It Summarize?

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I go through an interesting writing exercise regularly: I take magazine articles and write abstracts of them for a newsletter client.

The challenge involves taking an article, one that normally ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 words, and condensing it into a few hundred words. That means I need to get the article’s essence squarely in my sights and write about it in my own words.

When I go through that exercise, I’m amazed at the number of articles, many from highly respected business magazines, that don’t have internal integrity.

An article has internal integrity when the writer started out with a central idea, developed it well, and reaches a conclusion involving that idea. For example, the writer might start with an anecdote, using the anecdote to illustrate a problem.

She then goes on to explain why this problem deserves our attention. That’s followed by one or several potential solutions, and the pros and cons of each one, along with a recommendation or two. She concludes the article by summarizing the problem, the alternative solutions, and her recommendation, then links back to the opening anecdote. That’s just one story development model, but one that works.

As I say, many articles don’t have that kind of integrity. Some miss one or more parts of the model, others get them in the wrong order, and some don’t have a model at all, just the non-fiction equivalent of stream-of-consciousness (a fiction model).

You can ensure your writing has internal integrity — whether for memos, articles, instructions, or anything else — by taking measures before or after your writing. Perhaps the most familiar strategy is the preliminary outline. Before you start writing, you set out the elements you’ll address.

Another possibility is to go back to your message afterward and write a short abstract and ask yourself whether or not it makes sense. Does the story flow logically and clearly? Do you see any part of your model that might be missing?

A third possibility is just to set aside your writing for a few days and then look at it later with fresh eyes.

Whichever technique you choose, and that’s mostly a matter of your personal style, your writing will get better results if it has internal integrity.

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