How to investigate structure in non-fiction texts
- Structure is the way a text is organised.
- Structure can mean how the whole text is organised or the organisation of a single paragraph or sentence.
- The way a text is structured can affect the reader’s response.
Looking at the whole text
Some types of non-fiction text follow a pattern. You would expect an essay to start with an introduction and end with a conclusion, for example, or a letter to begin by addressing the recipient. But there is much more that you can consider.
When investigating whole text structure, you can look at:
- the order of information
- shifts in the writer’s viewpoint
- shifts in the focus - for example, shifting from theories to real-life examples
- changes in tone
A writer can control a text’s whole structure to have a particular impact on the reader. For example:
- A piece of travel writing could be structured so that the tone of excitement or tension builds towards the end.
- An investigative magazine article might be structured around a series of surprising events that keep driving the reader’s interest.
Looking at a single paragraph
A writer can play with length and sentence order within a paragraph.
In Usain Bolt’s autobiography Faster than Lightning: My Story, one of the paragraphs is ordered around the starter’s calls from a race, beginning with ‘On your marks’. This gives the reader an immediate sense of what the build-up to the race was like, drawing them into the action.
Bolt also uses the repetition of ‘Let’s do this … Let’s get this … Let me get this’ integrated with the starter’s instructions. It sounds like the athlete is talking to himself in the moments before the race begins, emphasising his focus and anticipation. The sentences - and the paragraphs - are also very short, which adds to the feeling of tension and excitement.
But in other types of non-fiction writing, a longer paragraph might slowly move the reader’s attention from one point to another, adding layers of evidence to make their points more convincing.
Paragraphs in magazine articles, speeches or essays, for example, might be ordered around a topic sentence which gives a little taster of what the paragraph will cover.
In former United States President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech, one paragraph begins, ‘This victory alone is not the change we seek’. This is the topic sentence and the rest of the paragraph explains the kinds of change the new president is hoping for:
‘This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.’
Looking at a single sentence
Writers will also think carefully about how they structure a single sentence.
Changing the order of the words or the punctuation can affect the meaning and impact of a single sentence. For example:
- ‘Appallingly, many factories still use child labour.’
- ‘It is appalling that many factories still use child labour.’
The structure of the first sentence gives the word appallingly more impact and stresses the opinion of the writer.
Punctuation can help a writer make their meaning clear. However, punctuation can also affect the impact of a sentence.
- ‘Will our society ever solve this problem?’
- ‘Will our society ever solve this problem!’
- ‘Will our society ever solve this problem …’
Each different piece of punctuation subtly changes the impact of this sentence. For example, the question mark gives the sentence a reflective tone. The exclamation mark gives the sentence an exasperated tone and the ellipsis suggests uncertainty.
Being aware of how a writer is using structure will help you understand non-fiction texts. Always ask yourself questions about the choices a writer is making. Notice patterns in sentences, within paragraphs and across whole texts.
Investigating structure quiz
Find out how much you know in this short structure quiz!
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