Templates – Yes or No?

For some writers, templates are hugely important. (Many teachers fall into this category.) Other writers feel stifled and confined when they’re confronted with a template. Who’s right?

That’s the wrong question.

What should you think about when you’re planning a writing task? (You do plan, right? Many writers don’t, alas). You should be thinking about the steps that will take your readers where you want them to go.

Many times a template is the answer, but it shouldn’t be your default. The “where you want them to go” principle should be paramount, and I have story that might clarify the point.

A friend of mine used to volunteer with the teen program at her church. One day she and the youth minister took the kids to a district youth event. To her chagrin, during the closing religious service they behaved badly, with giggling and horseplay. So she was surprised when the youth minister skipped the lecture when the kids boarded the bus to ride home.

Later, when she asked him why, he said the teens weren’t the real problem. The mistake was the way the event had been planned: A day of workshops and activities, followed by dinner, followed by the service.

“Dinner is social and relaxed,” he explained, “signifying that the serious stuff is over. The teens powered down – and then we asked them to make a quick transition into prayer and reflection. Not good planning.”

So how do you make a plan for a youth event – or a writing task? The usual approach is to list all the content you want to cover, and then arrange it so that it makes sense.

A smarter approach is to visualize your audience as you make your plan or design your template. So: if you’re planning a daylong youth event, begin by visualizing teenagers tumbling out of a bus. How are you going to engage them? When is the optimum time for lunch? Dinner? How are can you help them shift from one activity to the next?

Once you’ve made your plan, carried it out, and seen that it works, there’s nothing wrong with saving it to use again. Voila: a template!

But you also should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that every youth event has to be run the same way.

Similarly, many writing tasks – whether you’re writing a college essay or a business report – follow a standard format: beginning, middle, end. Attention-getter, thesis, development, wrap-up.

You know the drill (though you may not be following it as well as you think – I was still struggling in graduate school). But knowing how to follow a standard plan doesn’t mean you have to stick closely to it every time. Always think about your readers and your topic, and be willing to alter your plan if necessary.

Some suggestions:

  • State your point reasonably early, but it doesn’t have to be right away if you want to provide some background first
  • Tell stories – lots of them
  • Challenge conventional thinking
  • Avoid telling readers what they already know
  • Develop a toolbox of strategies for developing your ideas in the middle portion of your piece
  • Consider using the modes of development to help you make your point: process, definition, comparison, contrast, cause, effect, and so on
  • Know how – and when – to wrap up your piece so that readers don’t drift away before you’re finished

And always – ALWAYS – make sure you’re connecting with your readers.

(For more information about planning a writing task, take a look Getting Started and The Planning Step – free videos I’ve posted at www.PlanMyPaper.com.)

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