Quick Guide to Studying Writing Form

by Janet Holm McHenry

You hear all kinds of slogans at writers’ conferences. “Show, don’t tell.” “Write what you know.” “You learn how to write by rewriting.”

Those are typically understood fairly quickly. But one that puzzled me for a bit was “Study the form.” Huh? Even though I attended three major conferences the first year after God called me to write, I never could find a workshop that explained what that meant.

Eventually I taught myself, and here is a process I use and teach.

  1. Find a mentor book (or article, devotion, Bible study, etc.). As a mentor would, it can inform you about how to structure your writing.
  2. Study the title and subtitle. Why do they work?
  3. Study the table of contents.
  • How are sections organized?
  • How are the chapters titled and ordered?
  • Is there extra material—other than the regular chapters—to include a dedication (at the beginning or at the end), foreword, introduction, study guide, appendices? What do these offer for the reader?
  1. Do the word math.
  • How many chapters are there?
  • How many words are in a chapter?
  • How many sections do you find in a typical chapter?
  • How many words are in each of those sections? You can count them or do simple division to figure out a sense of pacing.
  1. Notice how the writer develops the thematic content for the chapter. Instead of noticing what the writer is SAYING, examine what the writer is DOING.
  • What is the balance between personal anecdote and teaching content?
  • How does the writer develop an ebb and flow of paragraphs, sentences, and sentence transitions?
  • How are good paragraphs written and tied together?
  • How is biblical content introduced?
  • When and how does the writer use figurative or other comparative language?

Noticing what a writer is DOING helps us understand what it means to study the form and then apply it as we try something new.

The Complete Guide to the Prayers of Jesus: What Jesus Prayed and How It Will Change Your Life Today (Bethany House 2018)

Janet McHenry is the author of 24 traditionally published books—six on prayer, including the best selling PrayerWalk and her newest, The Complete Guide to the Prayers of Jesus. The creator of an online Teachable course called Prayer School, she is also a writing coach and the host of the Sierra Valley Writers Retreat, held several times a year. She and her husband, Craig, have lived in the Sierra Valley for the last 40 years, where he is a rancher and where they raised their four kids. She loves connecting with other writers: www.janetmchenry.com.


Janet McHenry will keynote at the upcoming OCW Winter One Day Conference on February 26.

Visit our conference page for details