How to write better and faster with the art of deconstruction

In getting things done by neville

When you’re building and growing your own business there’s a ton of stuff you have to do. Many of those things are new, and we have to understand enough of the topic to outsource it sensibly, or even more if we have to do it ourselves.

This means we have to go through a lot of learning. Sometimes the topics are easy, sometimes it’s really hard. And unfortunately the people who can teach well are really few and far between.

I’ve had the great fortune to have learnt from some of the best teachers in the world. One of the people I admire the most is Klaus Hofer – he runs a company that specialises in usability engineering for documentation. (Full disclosure: I am also a business advisor for the company.)

Klaus is a corporate psychologist by training. I did his basic usability engineering for documentation course about five years ago, and although the topic is what Klaus calls a “perishable skill” I still have incredibly high retention and understanding of the topic.

One of the techniques that I saw Klaus apply – and I now apply in my own work and learnings – is the art of deconstruction.

What is the art of deconstruction?

To understand the art of deconstruction, it’s useful to start with the opposite: construction. Imagine building a house – you start with the plans, then you lay the foundation, then you do the walls, and so on. Each part builds on the next part.

The art of deconstruction is looking at the finished house and trying to figure out how it was put together. What came first? What came after that? While you may not be an expert house builder, you will have a better appreciation of the steps that went into building it.

Here’s another example. Let’s say that you have to design and deliver a workshop. If you’ve ever attended a well-designed and well-presented workshop you will know that it seems effortless, engages the participants from the word go and maintains the energy throughout the course of the workshop. Most importantly you walk out of the workshop with a new skill you can apply in your work or your personal life.

When you deconstruct a workshop, you’ll see that it has an opening, a main part and a closing. The main part is divided into a number of modules, delivered in sequence with clear breaks between them. Each module in turn consists of an opening, a body and a closing. And so on.

Just about anything can be deconstructed. Dancing, cooking, learning a language or building a business.

How does deconstruction work?

Learning to dance
Imagine that you’re trying to learn to dance – in particular, the salsa. When you look at the experts you sometimes shake your head and think “I will never be as good as that”. They move so fast, so elegantly and so in tune with each other that you can’t imagine that you’ll ever get there, or that it’s going to take years and years.

When we first try to understand a complex system, we’re baffled buy the sheer complexity. But if we focus in on just a part of it, it becomes a lot easier to understand.

So if you want to learn to dance the salsa, a good teacher will deconstruct it. They will start with the basic steps and have you practice that until it comes somewhat naturally. Then they will add a partner so that you can learn how the steps work when you’re dancing with someone. Then you will start adding in turns, and eventually you will start looking good – and enjoying it a whole lot.

You don’t learn to dance the salsa all in one go. You deconstruct it so that you can start with the basics, learn to do that well and then build on that.

Cooking a meal
Let’s take another example. Imagine that you’re having dinner at a friend’s house. She’s a really good cook and the meal is delicious. There are starters, a main course to die for and a dessert that’s just the perfect combination of lightness and flavours to round off a perfect meal. The setting is perfect, the music not too loud and the company great. You end the evening feeling content and satisfied – and wishing you could put something like that together yourself.

It may seem daunting, but when you break the whole evening down into it’s parts – when you deconstruct it – it becomes a little easier to understand how it’s done. The meal itself is deconstructed into three parts: starters, a main course and dessert. Each course can be deconstructed as well – first into the different foods on the plate, then each of the foods into the ingredients. The cooking process itself can be broken down into preparation, cooking and presentation. And so on.

Of course, just being able to deconstruct something does not mean that you’re able to do it – but you have a much better understanding of how it went together to create something spectacular.

That’s how deconstruction helps you take things that look complex and understand how they’re made up of simpler parts, and how those simpler parts are made up of even smaller, simpler parts.

How to use the art of deconstruction to write better and faster

Whenever you read a really well-crafted article on a blog or something like Medium, you will notice that you really enjoy the article. It flows easily, reads easily and makes the main points almost effortlessly. When you’re done reading you understand what the writer was trying to tell you, and chances are you remember at least some of the key points.

So how do you get to a really good article? And more particularly, how can you use the art of deconstruction to help you write better?

There’s an old adage that says:

If you want to be successful, just do what the successful people do.

In practice it’s not quite that easy, but in the case of writing articles we can learn an incredible amount from great articles by deconstructing them to see how they were put together.

So let’s start at the top.

1. Deconstruct the whole article
It’s very tempting to jump into the detail of how a good article is constructed. You can do that, but you will find that you easily get lost in the detail. So let’s start at a very high level and leave the detail for later.

Every article consists of:

  • a banner image;
  • an opening;
  • a body; and
  • a closing.

This may seem trivially simple, but stick around – you’ve just learnt one of the most important principles of deconstruction:

The easiest way to deconstruct something is one layer at a time. Avoid the temptation of going into detail too fast.

So there’s just 4 parts to a good article. That’s easy enough to understand, right? Now lets move one layer deeper.

2. Deconstruct the opening
A good opening has to capture your audience’s attention, so some drama is appropriate. That drama can be in the form of a personal story, a challenging statement or a promise. You have to get their attention.

Once you have their attention, you have to build a bridge from your opening to the body of your article. This sets the context of what you’re going to write about and helps your reader understand where you’re going with the story.

So opening = drama + bridge

3. Deconstruct the closing
Rather than jump into the detail of the body, we know that the closing is relatively short so it’s also relatively easy to deconstruct. A closing usually consists of:

  • a summary;
  • a link back to the opening drama; and
  • a call to action.

So closing = summary + link + call to action

4. Deconstruct the body
Now you have the body of the article. Many writers will use an article formula to craft their articles. A popular formula is the how-to formula:

  • solution introduction;
  • solution step 1;
  • solution step 2;
  • solution step 3 (and so on); and
  • solution summary.

Another popular formula is the “X things you need to know about Y”. The formula for this runs something like this:

  • problem;
  • thing 1;
  • thing 2;
  • thing 3 (and so on); and
  • summary.

There are many different formulas you can use in your own writing. Here’s what you should take away with you:

When you next read a really good article, take some time to deconstruct it to see how it was put together. This is the fastest way to learn how great writers craft great stories.

How this will help you

You now have a basic understanding of the art of deconstruction and how to apply it to articles.

What you now need to do is start using it on articles that you enjoy to see how they were put together.

As you analyse articles, you will learn how they’re put together. You will learn to recognise different formulas, different styles of opening and closing and see some of the techniques that authors use to grab and retain a reader’s attention.

And as you’re learning this, you can start applying it to your own writing. You will realise that the myth of sitting in front of a blank screen until inspiration hits is just that – a myth.

Writing is a structured process, and by deconstructing great articles you’re learning how other writers structure their writing processes so you can adopt and adapt what works for you.

Call to action

So here’s my challenge to you:

  • deconstruct this article;
  • then deconstruct three or four more; and
  • then use what you’ve learnt to start building your own structures and your own formulas.

You will find that your writing is more productive, faster and you deliver consistently better quality.

And if you’re really up for it, let me know what you’ve found – and if you feel you’re able to write better and faster.