The Structure of Nursery Rhymes In An Unfamiliar Guise

Here are some familiar nursery rhymes in an unfamiliar guise – as if composed by a poet who lacked the patience to structure his ideas properly before committing them to paper. Silly, of course. Yet so much everyday writing betrays a similar thoughtlessness.

For the original, well-structured versions of the nursery rhymes.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again,      following his fall. He had been sitting on a wall prior to falling.

There was a crooked man who found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile. This was while he was walking a crooked mile. He lived together in a little crooked house with a crooked cat and a crooked mouse which the crooked cat had caught. The crooked man had bought the crooked cat with the sixpence, you see.

Hey diddle diddle!

The little dog laughed

To see the fun –

i.e.  the cow’s jumping over the Moon.

Another effect was that the dish ran away with the spoon.

Maybe the cat and the fiddle also had something to do with it all.

Some birds began to sing

When a pie was opened.

Wasn’t that a dainty dish

To set before the king?

There were four-and-twenty of them birds, I mean.

Blackbirds actually. Did I mention

They’d been baked in the pie?

No? Well you can’t be expected to remember everything

If all they pay you for your song is sixpence

And a pocketful of rye.

As a contrasting exercise – contrasting  in scale and skill – try to work out the structure of a long magazine article or broadcast. Take notes as you proceed, and then draw up a diagram or summary revealing the bones and ligaments of the structure.

Here, for instance, is a brief description of a typical edition of Newsdesk in mid-1990 – a half-hour news programme on the BBC World Service, beginning at midnight GMT.

Five main features go to make up the programme, though they are hardly evenly weighted. In reverse order: the last three – the Press Review, Financial News, and Sports News – take only about two minutes each. The feature before that – News about Britain – takes roughly six minutes. The opening feature – World News – dominates the programme, taking up 15 or 16 minutes.

The World News is itself divided into three sections, in a particularly helpful way:

First come four or five ‘news headlines’ covering the main stories (about 30 seconds).

Then more detailed versions of each of those stories, and a few others (totaling about five minutes).

Then ‘our correspondents’ reports’ – consisting of in-depth coverage of the main stories, and some other topical stories, in the form of recorded reports by the BBC journalists based in the various countries involved(totalling about 12 minutes).

Especially helpful to the listener is the constant ‘signposting’ by the presenters – repeatedly mentioning the programme, the station, the time, and so on. In the ‘correspondents’ reports’ phase, for instance, the co-presenter begins with an outline of the story each time, and identifies the journalist and the

city – typically repeating these markers at the end of each report.

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Planning by Schematic Outlines Structure

A writer’s plan or outline is in some ways like a traveller’s  itinerary. Follow the instructions, and you will produce a well-ordered document, just as the traveller will catch his trains. But the writer’s outline is not really  as strict as a travel plan. It is a set of guidelines rather than a set of rules. It enables you as writer to convert your thoughts fairly smoothly into words, but at the same time it allows you the freedom to make tactical adjustments as you go along. An outline, like the text itself, can go through several drafts.

The first step is just to note down on a sheet of paper every relevant point you can think of. So much mental  energy  gets wasted by the struggle merely to retain in your memory all those ideas buzzing across your consciousness. Once you have jotted them all down, your mind will be free to concentrate on organising them effectively.

The case study below traces the various steps in compiling the plan of a fairly straightforward piece of writing – an office report. For more complicated pieces of writing – such as a college research project, say, or a detailed proposal for a charity drive – arriving at a well-developed plan might take a great deal more time and tinkering. But the principles remain the same:

X . Jot down all the points that occur to you, in random order if necessary. (At this early stage, you may  have not even the vaguest pattern in mind; once you do begin to detect one, you can rearrange all the points when writing them down a second time.)

X . Read them through: this in turn will generate further ideas.

X . Edit them: underline the most important ideas; write a question mark against the dubious ideas; cross out the trivial or irrelevant ideas; link related ideas by means of an arrow.

X . Study them: further connections will become apparent between various distant ideas; common themes will emerge, each embracing  several individual points; finally, a provisional structure will occur to you that will organise all the ideas into a single coherent whole.

X . Redraft your plan to represent this possible structure: a tree diagram usually works best, revealing clearly the relative importance of the various ideas, and the ways in which they relate to one another.

X . Test the structure: Is it neat enough, or are there straggly strings of  unintegrated items? Does it give equal prominence to items of equal importance? Is it perhaps too neat, forcing some item on to a branch of the structure simply because it does not seem to fit anywhere else? If so, try reassembling a few branches using a different arrangement of items.

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Planning the Structure BY Writer’s

For some lucky creative writers, planning apparently takes place subconsciously. The poem or play or story seems to present itself fully formed to the writer’s mind, in a dream or flash of inspiration perhaps, though no doubt the planning process has been ticking  over  for some time somewhere deep in the brain. One well-known example is Coleridge’s drug-induced daydream, in which he developed the complete wording of ‘Kubla Khan’ . On waking, he started writing the poem down from memory . . . until interrupted by a worldly intrusion – a visit from a ‘person on business from Porlock’.

Or a creative writer may have such a disciplined mind that, in consciously devising plans, he can work out and rearrange the most complex details without having to write anything down. Anthony Trollope would work out in his head, often when walking in the woods, the detailed actions and thoughts and even conversations of his various characters, and these would eventually find their way almost unchanged into the pages of his novels.

Some everyday writers manage to develop a similar skill in their specific subject. An experienced lawyer, for instance, might simply dictate to his secretary, word-perfect, an extremely complex letter of advice to a client.

Few everyday writers, however, can plan their writings so fast and fluently. For most people, it takes pencil and paper and a lot of painful mental effort, rather than just some spontaneous reflection and a good memory, to formulate plans for whatever it is that they are writing.

The standard method of arriving at a fully-fledged plan is by drawing up a schematic outline, though some people prefer  to use a modern technique of plunging straight into a rough  draft.

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Structural Signposting Typical Forms

Here is some folk wisdom for writers and speakers: First I tells ‘em what I,m going to tell ‘ em, then I tells ‘em, then I tells ‘em what I’ve tellt ‘em.

For much everyday writing, that serves as an excellent motto. In particular, it harks back to the golden rule: Remember the reader. Every time the poor reader opens a letter or report written by you, he feels as though he is entering a strange town for the first time, with no idea how to find his way about. What he needs is some bold signposts.

Common Types of Signpost

Here are some typical forms of signpost for use in everyday writing. They help to keep the reader continually conscious of his whereabouts.

The heading. This is the basic welcome to the reader. He knows at once, very roughly, where he is.

In a business letter, the heading is less conspicuous than in a report: it comes after the salutation (preferably not prefaced by the stilted word re):

Dear Mrs Braithwaite,

Your claim for a refund on

Your Zadok pressure cooker

Thank you for your letter of 19 October 1990, in which you . . .

Reference or identification. This might take the form of an account number (if dealing with a bank), for example, or a date (of a letter to which you are now replying), or a commission number: Market Research report no. 167.

Table of contents. In a longish report, research paper, academic thesis, or the like, a table of contents provides the reader with a panoramic survey. His reading should be faster, better focused, and more efficient now, as a result of knowing what lies ahead.

Subheadings and sub-subheadings. Like street names, these serve as constant reminders to the reader of his whereabouts. This very page (with its three distinct levels of heading) illustrates the point.

Advance warnings. These are the small ‘traffic signs’ within the running text – letting the reader know in good time what he is about to encounter. Suppose you are listing three reasons in favour of a particular course of action. Preface them, as a help to the reader, with the simple traffic sign: ‘There are three reasons for this suggested course of action.’ If you have to digress from your main line of argument, let the reader know – ‘A brief digression here, to explain the background to the scheme’ – or else he will think he is still on the main road, only to realise suddenly that he is lost.

Milestones. These small cues complement the advance warnings within the text. They inform the reader how far he has progressed along a certain road or line of thought. Suppose that each of the three reasons that you have to list is very long and detailed. You might intersperse reminders every so often just to reassure the reader of his bearing: ‘That is the primary reason for the course of action I propose. A second reason is as follows’ or ‘The last of the three reasons is this . . .’ Similarly, when you come to the end of a digression, inform the reader so that he knows his whereabouts again: ‘So much for the background to the scheme. To return now to the details of its budget and schedule . . .’

Summaries. In lengthy documents, don’t limit yourself to a single summary at the very end. Pause to take stock – to summarise or repeat – whenever the weight of information risks overloading the reader’s powers of concentration or memory.

One of the most important places for a full summary is the very beginning of the document – an ‘executive summary’ or ‘abstract’, it is sometimes called.

Lazy or hurried readers, if they read nothing else, can at least get the gist of your report in that way.

Another old rule of friendly report-writing: Don’t wait till the conclusion before stating your conclusions.

You can state them – or at least hint at them – very near the start.

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Passenger Information Notice

Here is a notice that appeared on various London buses in early 1988. The information it tries to convey will not go into a single, simple message. It has many aspects and complexities, which obviously  overwhelmed the person writing it.

Try to restructure the notice and present it in a way that passenger can understand rather more easily.

Two possible solutions are suggested below, but do write a version of your own before looking at them.


Buses 216, 237, and 290 in Surrey

Return fares will be introduced for

journeys outside Greater London

on Bus 290, and these tickets will be

inter-available for return journeys

on route 216 between Staines and


Some single fares will be increased

by up to 20p, but on Route 237 only

fares for journeys crossing the

Greater London boundry will be

Increased, and local fares within

Surrey will be unchanged.

Here now are the two possible versions of a more readable notice.

Buses 216, 237, and 290 in Surrey

NEW FARES: Single fares will rise by up

to 20p. On the 237 route, the fare

increase applies only to journeys into

or out of Greater London; fares within

Surrey remain the same.

NEW TICKETS: Buses 216 and 290 will

both sell return tickets which can be

used on either route. The tickets will

be available only for journeys outside

Greater London.


Starting  soon . . .

Bus  216 X. local Surrey fares unchanged

X. other fares rising by up to 20p

X. return tickets available if

Purchased on bus 290

Bus  237 X. Fares into and out of

Greater London rising

by up to 20p

X . other fares unchanged

Bus  290 X. local Surrey fares unchanged

X. other fares rising by up to 20p

X. return fares available outside

Greater London – these can also

be used on route  216 between

Staines and Sunbury

Effective from 10 January 1988


Note how the two versions structure the material differently, using a  distinctive basic division of the material  differently, using a distinctive basic division of the material in each case.

The first version divides the subject into two main sections, New Tickets. In fact, the headings could just as well be Single Fares and Return Fares.

The second version uses a three-part classification, taking each of the three buses in turn.

The main difficulty seems to be this: there is just too much complex information  to make a single snappy, eye-catching notice. The bus company should have complied three different notice, one for each route.(After all, the passengers on bus 237 do not really need the details of route  216.) The second version above would make a good basis: simply break up the information into three parts, and incorporate each part into a separate notice.

Remember, a good notice needs more than just good wording . Its needs a thoughtful layout too, and an eye-catching design – here perhaps including a witty slogan with a brightly coloured picture or appropriate diagram.

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Planning By Rough Drafts Structure

Some writers lose patience with methodical planning. Either they cannot generate enough ideas in the first place, or else they simply cannot find any pattern among the ideas they have, and so cannot draw up a structural outline.

Either way, they find that the breakthrough comes only when they actually begin writing the text. Or rather, writing a draft version of the text: the final version will probably differ unrecognisably from this preliminary effort.

It does not matter where you begin. Just pick on any promising ideas, and take it for a walk, so to speak.

The act of writing itself focuses the mind: one idea sparks off another, connections begin to form, and eventually an all-embracing structure might suggest itself. Quite what the psychological mechanism is remain unclear, but the trick is well-established in folk-wisdom: ‘How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?’ the legendary chatterbox replies when accused of aimless prattling.

The technique of ‘written prattling’ works best if conducted according to a few basic rules:

X . Write as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about a polished style, or even about finishing a sentence or paragraph. If a new idea occurs to you as a good follow-up, start writing it up directly even if the previous idea remains only half-written. The point is to develop a structure, not to develop a tidy text.

X . Keep jotting down new ideas – or new patterns of ideas – on a separate sheet of paper as they occur to you. In this way you might discover surprisingly quickly that  you can stop writing your rough draft, since enough material has emerged to form the basis of a satisfactory outline plan after all.

X . Once you have nothing more to write, put the draft to one side and try drawing up an outline plan from scratch. Perhaps the intense act of writing has churned up and fermented your ideas in a very productive way, enabling you to discern their proper pattern at last. Only if you still fail to see a clear structure should you return to your draft and read it through for clues. And if nothing satisfactory comes of that either, try the whole exercise all over again, using a different starting-point this time.

X . Above all, remain uncommitted. Your draft version is not meant to be the basis for your final version. Take it for what it is: a catalyst, or a form of therapy – a means to jolt you into the correct reaction or perception, but not itself the object of the exercise. Its purpose is to being clarity: once it has done that, put it away and start your writing project in earnest – compiling a plan, writing a proper draft, and editing and refining that into a final version.

The case study that follows demonstrates the more traditional technique of schematic outlines. Being a fairly straightforward assignment, it lends itself to that approach. But you could just as easily – and as quickly – get the same result by using the rough-drafting technique. And for more complicated writing tasks, you might find the new technique far more efficient than the traditional one.

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Abusing Euphemisms Discussion

For many people who ‘live by the word’ – Public officials, PR spokesmen, advertisers, campaigners, and the like – euphemism is a favourite weapon. Advertising copywriters, for instance, scared of alarming potential customers, temper the harsh reality: an economy-size or standard carton (small), a budget ticket (cheap), dresses for the full-figure woman (fat), adult films (pornographic).

Sociologists and Psychologists indulge wholesale in ‘sentimental’ (left-wing) or  ‘cosmetic’ (right-wing) euphemisms: disadvantaged, lower-income levels, adjustment problems, slow learner, underachieving, shrinkage (losses through shoplifting), and so on.

Journalists reputedly draw on a ‘secret’ code of euphemisms that skirts the libel laws without for a moment puzzling regular readers: convivial (drunk), ruddy-faced (drunken), steadfast (obstinate), irreverent (rude), outspoken (insulting or threatening), pert (small and plain), creative accounting (fraudulent tampering with the figures), The project is in abeyance (it is suspended because disastrous).

The estate agent’s copywriter used to be the butt, fairly or unfairly, of jokes by housebuyers, amused or unamused. Among his alleged euphemisms were: conveniently located for local transport facilities (overlooking noisy railway lines), sun-drenched (too hot in summer), a renovator’s dream (very tatty), would benefit from some minor structural improvements (condemned as unsafe, about to collapse).

Most notorious of all are political and military spokesmen. Their dubious contributions to the language include the following typical items: pacification (battering into submission), logistical strikes (bombing raids), border realignment (seizure of territory), frank discussions (a slanging match), revenue enhancements (tax increases), containment (concealing information from the public).

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Tight Writing Vs Flabby Writing

Consider the following two versions of a text the conclusion of a short story written for a training course. The narrator recalls an incident from his childhood. He and his twin brother, aged ten at the time, are waiting in the local barber ‘s shop to have their hair cut. The barber, preparing to shave another customer, is stropping his razor and grinning at the two boys. A voice on the radio is meanwhile reporting a local murder case – an elderly woman had had her throat cut while eating dinner in bed.
First version
The Police broke into the house the next afternoon. They searched the kitchen and hall, but found nothing out of the ordinary. They then rushed upstairs. Even though they knew what to expect, they were shocked at what they saw. Entering the bedroom, they saw the corpse staring back at them from the bed. She was still sitting upright, but the napkin at her  throat now had a dark reddish-brown stain on it.
The barber put down the leather strap. He tested the razor with his thumb. Then he waved it in the air for a moment, and brought it gently down to rest just below the customer’s ear.
This was too much for my brother and me. We looked at each other, and the tension broke. We launched into action. Without a word we jumped up, clutching our hats, and raced out of the shop.
Edited version
The Police broke into the house the next afternoon. They searched the kitchen and hall: nothing.
They rushed upstairs to the bedroom. And saw the corpse staring back at them from the bed. Still sitting upright-but the napkin at her throat now had a dark stain.
The barber put down the leather strap. He tested the razor with his thumb. Then he waved it in the air for a moment. Then he brought it gently down to rest, just below the customer’s ear.
I looked at my brother. My brother looked at me.
Without a word, clutching our hats, we raced out of the shop.
What makes the edited version so much tighter and more effective and more dramatic? Above all, the simple deletion of various inefficient words, phrases, or sentences. Inefficient because unnecessary for the purpose of the story. The word reddish-brown is unnecessary: a dark stain, in this context, needs no further explaining. Similarly, the sentence we launched into action adds nothing, except wordiness, to the account of the scene.

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Length of sentence- Changing with the Times

Here are extracts from two editorial articles in The Times of London. They appeared on the same day – 82 years apart. Note how the style of writing has changed. The language of The Times in the late 20th century certainly remains fairly formal and sophisticated by modern standards, and the sentences are fairly long, averaging about 20 words in the 1989 extract here. But the writing is still far simpler and less stilted than that of The Times in the early years of the century. The sentences in the 1907 extract average nearly 40 words in length. And more to the point, their syntax is vastly more convoluted.
He has also discovered, however, that when Molotov put his hasty signature to the agreement  with Ribbentrop, he and Stalin started the clock of a sizeable time bomb. Its tick is heard louder by the day, especially in the Baltic Republics and what is now Soviet Moldavia.
Reform at home has dictated that foreign policy be recast. Tippex has been applied to the script from which the late Mr Gromyko read so glumly and for so long. ‘No’ has given way to ‘maybe’and even occasionally to ‘why not’? It is in West Germany that Mr Gorbachov’s charm offensive has made the deepest inroads. The Soviet leader’s siren song about a common European home has beguiled large numbers of West Germans, and for many in the Federal Republic reunification is ceasing to be a repressed dream. The relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union is once again of major importance in Europe.
-The Times, 23 August 1989.
It is highly characteristic of our English way of doing business that, while many days are often spent by the House of Commons in wrangling about controversial trifles, a couple of hours at the fag-end of the session suffices for the introduction and acceptance of a measure of high imperial interest.
Such is the happy fate of the Northern Nigerian railway, disposed of yesterday in a couple of clauses of the public Works Loans Bill. Mr Runciman, the secretary of the Treasury, introduced the Bill, and Mr Churchill explained the proposal at some length, repeating in greater detail the facts which he had briefly indicated a little more than a fortnight ago. While, of course, repudiating the hint of the other side, that the Bill savoured of protection, Mr Churchill claimed that it was part of ‘the policy of improving the communications by sea and land across the surface of the British Empire’.
-The Times, 23 August 1907.

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