How to write a text

Key message: A non-fiction text needs a clear structure. It must explain in a logical order all the points that are necessary for the reader to understand the message of the text.


There are 4 obstacles to writing a good text. There is a lack of

- the necessary thematic knowledge
- an idea for the unfolding of the topic
- the appropriate formulations
- the time for a thorough revision


What is a text?

There are several text definitions, none is generally accepted.


"A text is a communication tool that an author uses to communicates a fact to a reader. The author tries to control the consciousness of the reader by means of linguistic formulations in such a way that the reader understands what the author means." (Schnotz, W.(2006). Textverständnis, in: Rost, D.H. (Hrsg.), Handwörterbuch Pädagogische Psychologie.(3. Aufl.), Weinheim: Psychologie Verlags Union, p. 769-777, my translation)


A text can inform, explain, prompt, entertain or attempt to manipulate. Common to all texts is that everyone has the goal to communicate at least one statement. Statements always have two sides: content and style. An arbitrary string of letters (e.g. uihagnund) is not text.


What is a good text?

A good text is understandable, pleasant, interesting and stimulating.


We can "summarize our basic right to understandable, pleasant, interesting reading into three basic requirements ... 1. Writer and speaker: Be brief! ... 2. Grasp the matter - hit the target ... 3. Love your reader as yourself! ... What they [the readers] find pleasant, what inspires them: That counts."

(Schneider, W. (1988). Deutsch für Kenner. Die neue Stilkunde. Hamburg: Gruner + Jahr, p. 40 u. 41, my translation)


A text is interesting if it offers the reader something new that is important to him. It is pleasant when the reader feels entertained. And it is inspiring when the reader is made to use his imagination.


When is a text easy to understand?

"Everywhere there is a lack of the insight that someone always has to plague when a complicated process is to be described in a comprehensible way: the writer or the reader. Writers tend to pass this plague on to the readers ... "

(Schneider, W. (1988). Deutsch für Kenner. Hamburg: Gruner + Jahr, p. 43, my translation)


Based on their research findings, Hamburg psychologists have found four characteristics that make a text easy to understand:


1. Simplicity


"Simplicity refers to the choice of words and sentence structure, i.e. to the linguistic formulation: common, descriptive words are combined to short, simple sentences. If difficult words occur (foreign words, technical terms), they are explained."

(Langer, I., Schulz von Thun, F., Tausch, R. (2002). Sich verständlich ausdrücken. München; Basel: Ernst Reinhardt, p. 16, my translation)


An understandable text is written in correct and stylistically good English. I have to master my language in such a way that I can express myself accurately with simple words and sentences.


What is proper English, says the grammar, which is responsible for the formal rules of the English language (the spelling is a branch of grammar). There are countless books and websites about grammar.


What is good English, scientifically examines the style. Style is the way someone speaks or writes. There are many books on style that explain what style is.


2. Structure/Outline


A text is understandable if it has a clear structure.


"This feature refers to the inner order and the outer structure of a text.
Internal order: ... The information is presented in a meaningful order.
Outer structure: The structure of the text is made visible. Related parts are clearly grouped, e.g. by headlined paragraphs".
(Langer, I., Schulz von Thun, F., Tausch, R. (2002). Sich verständlich ausdrücken. München; Basel: Ernst Reinhardt, p. 18, my translation)


I can only describe a complicated issue in a way that is easy to understand if I have understood it myself. Understanding something means knowing not only the facts, but also the relationships between the facts. The structure is the way in which the parts of a whole relate to each other. I must have understood the structure of the facts in order to be able to write a well-structured text about them.


3. Brevity/Conciseness


A good text is not too long and not too short. It is limited to the essentials. If a text is too short, questions remain unanswered. If it is too long, it describes superfluous or too many details.


4. Stimulating Additions


A scientific text should be factual, but also stimulating. Therefore, it should contain a few stimulating additions. Used sparingly, they increase the clarity of the text and its memory value. An interesting example would be such a stimulating addition.


How to create a clear text structure?

A longer text (Latin textum: tissue, assembly) has a hierarchical structure. This results from the need to explain the main message by using partial statements. The partial statements are described by partial texts, which are also called text segments. These represent "essential units of meaning." In them, "sub-themes are developed that contribute to the development of the overall text (and the main theme) ..." (, siehe unter Teiltext, 20.10.10)


"For Harweg, texts are formed as 'hierarchically structured entities' (Harweg 1990: 17), 'from top to bottom' with consideration of the text theme, and are also constituted linearly, 'from left to right'."

( siehe unter Textstruktur, 15.11.12)


The structure of a text could look like this:


How to write a text? The red thread -


Each table of contents shows in principle such a hierarchical text structure. Each text answers a main question whose answer is the main message of the text. Likewise, each chapter and subchapter answers a subquestion whose answer is a partial statement.


It would be optimal if an author already has such a text structure in mind when she starts writing an article. But this is not necessary (see below) and a text does not have to start with the main message.


The red thread shows the linear linkage of the subtexts. They must logically follow one another. That is, the reader must first read the subtexts necessary to understand the subsequent subtexts. There must be no omissions or jumps.


Definition: The red thread is the logical sequence of statements, so that the reader can understand the main message of the text. (see figure below)


The red thread is the guiding principle that runs through the text. The above picture makes this clear: The "red thread" is formed by all the subtexts that have a connection to the main message of the text. In the image above the subchapter 1.3 is superfluous because it has no connection to the main message and therefore does not belong to the red thread of the text. It does not help to clarify the main message and should be left out.


"Structural analyzes of literary texts ... are aimed at an exact recording of the meaning of the text and how it comes about. For this they break down the text into its various levels and elements and seek to uncover a hierarchical order ..."

(Schutte, J. (1993). Einführung in die Literaturinterpretation, Stuttgart, Weimar: J. B. Metzler, p. 94, my translation)


What is the main message of a text?

The main statement is the most important statement of the text, formulated very briefly, preferably in one sentence. It expresses the essence of a text:


"After Uncle Herbert has read the first story in the magazine Stern, he calls for example into the kitchen: "Helga imagine: If the climate catastrophe continues like this, Wiesbaden will be on the North Sea in 40 years' time! This ... kitchen call ... is the answer to the question: "What does the author want to tell us with his text?"" (Reiter, M., Sommer, S. Perfekt schreiben (2009), München, Carl Hanser Verlag, p. 20, my translation)


The kitchen call is the main statement of a text. Often it is difficult to formulate such a main message. Then it is easier to determine the main question that the text answers. The main statement would then be the answer to this main question.


"Text comprehension is a ... goal-oriented process. ... Microstrategies are aimed at understanding the consecutive statements ... Macro strategies, on the other hand, focus on working out the main ideas of a text." (Schnotz, W. (2006). Textverständnis, in Rost, D. H. (Hrsg.), Handwörterbuch Pädagogische Psychologie, Weinheim: Beltz Verlag, p. 774, my translation)


A text is a system of statements.  Many people know how to analyze a system (a text), but only a few are able to synthesize "the whole" from the elements of a system ("the whole" is more than the sum of its parts, read on Learn-Study-Work "How to analyze systems?").


Why is writing often a problem?

If there is a problem, there are obstacles on the way to the goal (the text). In order to reach the goal, a method must be used. The method can also be seen as a plan:


"Rehbein (1977) describes a plan of action that becomes necessary when a set goal can not be reached without difficulty because of obstacles. In terms of writing, this means the following: A writing plan becomes necessary when the writer is unable to realize his communicative goal directly. The obstacles can be very different; the writer may lack the necessary thematic knowledge, he does not know the addressees and their prior knowledge, he has no ideas for the unfolding of the topic, he lacks suitable formulations and other things."
(Becker-Mrotzek, M. (2007). Planungs- und Überarbeitungskompetenz entwickeln, in: Informationen zur Deutschdidaktik, 31 (2007) 1, S. 25-34, siehe auch, S. 27, 13.06.15)


1. Obstacle: The necessary thematic knowledge


Who wants to write a text usually already has some knowledge of the subject. One should not believe that one could therefore simply write down the text. This can only be done by experts who have already written several texts on the subject.


"It is a well-known phenomenon to come across unexpected questions that remain unanswered when one tries to present a problem coherently and convincingly, because then one is less frivolous about what is apparently known. ... Problems are often an indicator of one's own incomplete knowledge."

(Ascheron, C. (2007). Die Kunst des wissenschaftlichen Präsentierens und Publizierens, München: Elsevier GmbH, p. 179, my translation)


"If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough." (Einstein)


„Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know.“

(Zinser, W. (2001). On Writing Well, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 12)


Those who have a "writer's block" should first check whether their thematic knowledge is really complete. If the necessary knowledge to answer a sub-question is not in my memory, I have to do a literature search.


Unfortunately it is often not so easy to find the right texts for a question. It may be that I have to find and read many different texts in order to gain the necessary knowledge to answer the question.


When I read literature to understand the subject, I should always pay attention to whether I can use texts or text passages as quotations or as stylistic models for formulating my text. If the content does not differ from the original, I have to indicate the source (otherwise it is a plagiarism). But I can learn which technical terms are used to formulate a text on the subject.


2. Obstacle: No idea to unfold the topic


If you have no idea how to unfold the topic, you don't know how to structure your text. The following describes how to proceed from the general to the particular in order to structure the text. (How to proceed from the particular to the general: see "Text Outline".)


The quote above says that writing a difficult text requires a plan. The first step to a plan is to decide what the main message of the text should be. This must be precisely defined, otherwise it cannot serve as a starting point for the text. To determine the main message, I need a good thematic knowledge (see 1st obstacle). I need to do a literature review to see what and how others have written on the topic, because my main message must be consistent with the existing literature.


If I know the main message of the text I want to write, I can use it as the starting point for my outline. I ask myself, what do I have to tell the reader to understand the main message? By answering this question, I find partial statements. I subdivide this further: What do I have to tell the reader so that he understands the partial statements?


So I can continue until I have reached the lowest level of my outline (the lowest level of my chapters). A text should not have more than 3 outline levels so that it does not get confusing. Even at the lowest chapters, I ask myself: what must be written in this chapter, so that the reader understands the partial statement of the chapter? I then write the text as an answer to this question. I subdivide it into paragraphs so that it looks good and is easier to read.

The following figure describes the procedure for the first two outline levels of a text:

How to design the structure for the reader -


With this approach I have to estimate the level of knowledge of my readers to find the right structure. A text for a layperson looks very different from a text for professionals.


If I want to write a text of which I don't know the main statement yet, I can use the main question as a starting point. Which subquestions do I have to answer in order to answer the main question? As soon as I have found a subquestion, I can start working on this subquestion. If I have written the text for a subquestion, it usually results in the next subquestion that I have to answer.


A good starting point for finding subquestions is to look at the definitions of the terms that the text is intended to deal with. Defining something precisely is not easy and raises many questions.


When I have finished writing the text, I have found an answer to the main question, the main message. With this main statement I examine the structure of my text. Maybe I have to improve the structure so that the reader can better understand the main message.


A good text encourages the reader to think along. The reader should ask himself: "What will happen next?" A text may not be an enumeration, in which the enumeration points follow each other without recognizable connection. Such a text is boring.


3. Obstacle: The lack of appropriate formulations


In a language there is a word for every thing, for every phenomenon and for every process. If we relate the words to each other, we can make statements. A statement is the linguistic representation of a fact. To make statements we formulate sentences. (Seiffert, H. (1975). Introduction to Philosophy of Science 1, Munich: Publisher C. H. Beck, p. 53 and 60 ff.)


In other words:
If we want to say something meaningful, we have to bring the appropriate words into a meaning relationship. Such a sense relation is called a sentence. (Klein, H. W., Strohmeyer, F. (1967). Französische Sprachlehre, Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, p. 13).


In order to be able to formulate understandable sentences about a fact, I must ...


1. have understood the fact(see above)


2. have the appropriate vocabulary (Which technical terms are used for a particular issue, I see in texts that others have written on this issue.)


3. master the grammar and spelling

4. choose the right style for my statements

The right style, the right formulations, depends on the specific situation:

If I want to remind a friend of today's meeting, I have different ways of saying it: "Do not forget our meeting today." "Be punctual today!" "Please come on time today!" "If you do not come on time today, you're in trouble." … Which is the most appropriate phrase depends on the specific situation. (Everyone knows how embarrassing it is to use the wrong words.)


When we do something, it is not only important what we do, but also how we do it.

Definition: Style is the way we do something or how something was done.

Style is also important when writing a text:


"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter: it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

(Mark Twain, Letter to George Bainton, published in "The Art of Authorship" by George Bainton)

Choose a text type, determine the content and the style -

When I want to write a text, I first need an idea of the content, i.e. what I want to say with the text. Then I consider whether the planned text belongs to a text type.


In order to make it easier to read all texts that are supposed to perform the same task, text types have been formed for them and certain style rules have been defined. So, if I want to write a text that belongs to a certain text type (e.g. a business letter or a poem), I have to follow the requirements and style rules that apply to that text type so that my text has the characteristics of that text type.

Text types are "... linguistic patterns to deal with specific communicative tasks ..." (See Text Pattern Knowledge:, 30.08.15). All texts of a text type have common characteristics which distinguish them from other texts.


The style rules for the text types are usually only rough rules, so there are still possibilities to write the text according to the personal style, through clear and simple formulations (but not too simple), a logical structure and no exaggerations.


“The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” (William Strunk, jr. (1959). "The Elements of Style")


For example, if I want to write a bachelor's or master's thesis, I have to meet the requirements and follow the rules that apply to such work. So it is advisable to inform yourself about them.


4. Obstacle: Often there is no time for a thorough revision


"Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair."

(Zinser, W. (2001). On Writing Well, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 12)


To describe a simple fact is not hard work. "We'll meet at the station at 5 pm." Writing such a message is no problem.


The description of a complex issue is difficult. The human brain cannot consider all the influencing factors at once that are important in writing such a text.


When you read the final text, you need to see a "logical flow" and the style (the formulations and the layout) must match. Therefore a demanding text has to be revised several times. Time must be planned for this.


What is the writing plan for a difficult text?

When I want to write a text on a difficult topic, I first have to think about the main question the text should answer or the main message the text should have. In doing so, I determine the goal of my text.


Next, I estimate how much time I will need to write a text with this goal. If there is not enough time available, I would have to reduce the goal. I divide the available time into three time periods:

  1. Gather information to understand the topic and create a rough writing plan.
  2. Write the text.
  3. Revise the text and reserve for unforeseen problem.

Such a schedule is necessary so that I don't end up running out of time.


1. Gathering information and creating a rough writing plan influence each other. I read what others have written on the topic and thus have an idea of what my text might look like, i.e., what text parts it must contain (I create an outline). Then I look for the information for the text parts and may have to correct my idea of the structure of my text. Hopefully, when I have gathered enough information for each part of the text, my writing plan is clear enough that I can use it to write my text. In a pinch, I can also start writing when the plan is not quite ready and hope that further insight will come as I write (but no blind actionism = just start writing without a plan).

If you are writing your bachelor's or master's thesis, for example, you are supposed to develop new ideas under time pressure and are therefore uncertain. Uncertainty is often combated by excessive "information gathering ... or by blind (because hardly based on information) actionism." (Dörner, D. (2000). Die Logik des Mißlingens, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, p. 153).

2. While reading the literature I have always paid attention to the style other texts have used (technical words, formulations, outline, visualizations). This makes it easier for me to formulate my text.


3. With good planning, I have time at the end to revise my text thoroughly. I read it through several times and look for bumpy parts. I correct these. When the text is easy to understand and reads smoothly, it is ready.


Text writing is a skill/competence that can only be acquired through practice.