Looking for a system of structural writing


Categories: Emacs Latex Tags: Structural editing

I mentioned in the previous post that writing is hard and that I don’t have any tips that can make it easier. That is mostly true, but I also mentioned that I’m starting to write using topic sentences, which is useful writing strategy for me.

I didn’t mention in the last post that I like to think about computer tools that help users complete tasks, and I think structural writing is where our computers generally fall short. By structural writing, I mean writing in an environment that hints toward good organization.

Let me explain1

When you sit down to write a research paper, your job is to convey your complex thoughts to the reader in a manner that requires the reader to exert as little effort as possible. Some topics are genuinely hard to convey, like academic research. At a high level, the best we can do to make things easy on the reader is to

  1. Write simply and clearly; and
  2. Organize our ideas.

I read somewhere that if you are thinking without writing then you aren’t really thinking at all, and that quote occurs to me when I consider organizational strategies because you can only organize thoughts on a page, not in your head.

Now we usually use something like Word or Emacs to write our thoughts, and these programs are so tremendous, that I’m way more productive using these over using a piece of paper and a pencil.

However, when it comes to organization, they are not much better than a piece of paper. There are no guardrails to guide organization, other than the fact that the Word document probably should be read from beginning to end.

It’s great not to have guardrails: Most of the time you don’t need or want them. I do not want them when I jot notes, a blog post, a journal entry, or most other things. So there’s nothing wrong with MS Word.

What I want is some writing system like Emacs’s Org-mode or LateX, but with gentle pushes towards well structured arguments when I need it, like when I’m doing technical writing.

Example implementation

An efficient method is to first create an outline of your paper. Each bullet point is a topic sentence, a complete sentence that contains the main idea of each paragraph.

We can easily have one document that has these bullet point topic sentences, and another document of our actual notes, but that’s terrible, because the main document and the topic sentence document get out of sync. We need a way to keep them in sync.

My proposal is something like a latex macro, but it should be easy to use. In a text editor or MS word, we should be able to toggle between the main document and the topic sentence document with a key binding. This way, the topic sentences never get out of sync with the main document, because they are part of the main document, just perhaps with a tag.

The system could look something like this. I use LateX syntax, but it could be another system.

Topic sentence mode:


\ts{Here is a topic sentence.}

\ts{Here is another topic sentence with a difference main idea.}


Rest of document, in easy to parse topic-sentence-mode

A keybinding brings us to the main paper:


Here is a topic sentence. Here is the rest of the paragraph. And now I present all of my supporting evidence to the topic sentence.

Here is another topic sentence with a difference main idea. And the paragraph continues. Here is some more evidence and arguments.


Rest of document in "main document mode", the outline is hidden for writing convenience, like MS Word.

We could even take this a step further.

  1. Level one: topic sentences. Main ideas only.
  2. Level two: briefing level. Topic sentences with light evidence. Details in Backup slides
  3. Level three: Full detail mode.

Depending on the level of detail, the document renders differently. We could render in topic sentence mode for a meeting with colleagues, and in main document mode for submission to the sponsor or a journal.


I see two avenues.

One version of this system is as a set of latex macros. So the system could just be a latex package that is added to any existing paper. I would definitely like this.

Another option would be to use org-mode in Emacs. Orgmode is a powerful tool for outlining, but the outline is still separate from the content, and it would be better if there was a way to weave them together. Also org-mode is hard to transplant from Emacs, so that’s bad for portability. Markdown is another option.

I think in either case an advanced editor is required to easily switch between “topic sentence mode” and “main document mode”.

Perhaps there are writing systems that professionals – such as screen play writers etc – use to organize their thoughts, and seamlessly toggle between outline and main document?

  1. NB: this blog post is not a good example of structural writing.↩︎