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Organizing your ideas

Clear, organized thinking produces clear, logical writing. Choose the information to include and to leave out. Cut points and information not clearly relevant to program or project. Cutting nonessential information will also save time for you, your reviewers and editors, your readers, and people or vendors translating your document into another language. Ask yourself, "Do I really need to say this?"

Divide your information into main and secondary points. Organize your information so it flows logically from your reader's point of view. Organize your material so your readers can extract what they want in the shortest possible time. Anticipate answers to reader questions: So what? How does this affect me?

Usually, make your main point easy to find--at the beginning of your document. Tell your readers early: what your conclusion is, what you want them to do, or whatever your main purpose is for your document. By getting the most important information upfront, your readers can find what is important to them and then decide how much more detail they want.

Organize the rest of your document into sections of related information. Break the document into manageable chunks of information--its various topics and subtopics. Those sections can range from a single paragraph to several pages of short paragraphs.

Try to start each section with its main point. Help your readers move from section to section with headings and subheadings about the content in each section or block of related information.

Consider the format in which your document will be published. Will it be a brochure with blocks of information contained within one panel or on the back panel? Will it be a website in which less important information can be provided on lower-level pages? Will certain details need to be highlighted in a sidebar article or box of text in a newsletter or on a Web page? Could some information be clearer in a table, chart or graph--or as a photograph or illustration? Creation of those graphics may need to begin while you're writing the document.

Here's a useful way to organize most documents:

  • Message. First, summarize the most important question or issue of interest to your readers. Give the punch line--your major conclusions. And tell your readers quickly and clearly what follows. State it briefly in a Subject line, or give it a clear heading: Summary (not Introduction). Provide background information later in the document.
  • Action. Second, recommend what your readers should do with your message--the follow-up actions they should take. Or tell your readers what your organization is going to do next.
  • Details. Third, give the necessary details, omitting the obvious information. Answer your readers' probable how and why questions. And give the relevant who, what, where, when and how much information--if you didn't include those details in the opening summary message or action statement.
  • Evidence. Fourth, add optional material, enclosures or attachments to support your conclusions, recommendations and details.

Within the details, try to organize your information in a consistent way, such as one of the following or a logical combination of these approaches:

  • most important to least important -- an "inverted pyramid" of information; possibly the most direct, reader-friendly approach for all types of information and documents. 
  • seven questions -- What? your essential message. Who? people concerned. When? days, hours, time lines, deadlines. Where? places. How? circumstances, explanations. Why? causes, objectives. How much? calculable and measurable data.
  • problem - cause - solution.
  • chronological order.
  • questions and answers.
  • general to specific.
  • specific to general.
  • step-by-step.

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