Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.
How to Organize Your Paper or Report
In this Lesson:
- The most frequent complaint -- poor organization
- Just the facts, Ma'am!
- Pitfalls of the traditional approach
- The Analytical Outline
- How to get started
- It's what's up front that counts!
In this lesson, you'll learn that organization just means creating a logical structure to fit your facts or data into, and that the most sensible structure is determined not by the facts or data themselves, but by your purpose in writing. You decided what that purpose is in the last lesson, so half of your organization problems are solved already.
THE MOST FREQUENT COMPLAINT -- POOR ORGANIZATION
Poor organization is probably what's wrong with your paper when you hear people say: "I can't figure out what he's trying to say! Why doesn't he get to the point?" Complaints like that might make you think that most people go about writing their papers backwards. How can such a thing happen?
Remember the myths about writing that we covered in Lesson 3? Some of them were habits you carried over into your scientific and technical writing from Sophomore English Composition. One of those habits is unfolding what you have to say like a story, complete with suspense and a punch line at the end.
Look at this business letter and notice how long it takes you to find out what the message is:
Dear Mr. Snarf,
Six months ago, we bought some temperature transducers from your company to monitor the temperatures in our brewing vats. As these transducers are constantly on line, the solid-state sensing element (part number 75-8354) is subjected to an abnormally corrosive environment. Something in our beer seems to eat through the stainless-steel case and short out the transducer. As a result, these transducers have been failing at an average rate of one a month.
We usually keep at least a dozen transducers in stock for routine replacement purposes, but through an oversight of our storeroom manager, the stock has dropped to three. Because it usually takes a month or two to reorder these parts, we are in danger of running out before new sensors arrive through normal purchasing processes.
Therefore, we wish to special order two dozen transducers and ask that you ship them at once by air express.
Very cordially yours,
J. B. Gronk,
JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM!
Poor Mr. Snarf! Let's hope he doesn't have to deal with too many of these sad stories every day. Unlike the audience for a play or novel, he has no use for suspense. How much easier his life would be if all his orders looked like this instead:
Please ship 24 Model 75-8354 temperature transducers immediately by air express. Here is our purchase order.
Although this example is a short business letter, it illustrates a structural flaw that shows up in many longer scientific and technical reports. All of us learned how to back into our writing assignments in school when we wrote essays and stories, and later, scholarly papers and college theses. The structure we were taught goes something like this:
THE TRADITIONAL OUTLINE
1. Introduction (Historical background)
2. Statement of the problem (Why are you doing this?)
3. Technical background (How far have others gotten on this problem?) Usually a historical account
4. Description of your analysis, development, or measurements (What have you done? How did you do it?)
..................... Supporting details
..................... (the bulk of your paper)
5. Results (What did you find out?)
6. Discussion and interpretation (What do your results mean and how do they relate to the stated problem?)
7. Conclusions and recommendations (What should be done next?)
If you follow this outline, that is, if you write in answer to this sequence of questions, then your paper may come out OK. At least it will conform to the classical conventions for organizing a report on a technical project or a scientific investigation.
PITFALLS OF THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH
The first is that you are forcing your reader to wade through the same process you did to get to your results and conclusions. It's almost as though you were saying, "I had to go through this painful process to reach my conclusions... why shouldn't you?"
When you let the facts or the data themselves determine the structure of your writing, your paper, in effect, says no more than "Look at my wonderful data!" How many papers have you seen that seem to say nothing more than this? Aren't they really just catalogs of undigested facts?
So many writers simply catalog facts that readers, in defense, have learned a trick to subvert the problem: To find the main conclusions, results and recommendations, they skip to the end! If they can't find them there, they often give up, because they don't feel like digging through the whole text to find the few important facts they're looking for.
Take a longer report or paper you have written, and underline the sentences that give your main resuls, conclusions, interpretations, and recommendations. Before you begin, start timing yourself. Go ahead... I'll wait here for you.
That's roughly how long it will take someone not familiar with your paper to do the same thing. Are your readers likely to hang around that long?
Where in your paper did you have to go to get that information?
That exercise assumed that you can in fact find sentences that clearly tell what the results, conclusions, interpretations and recommendations are. You could find them, couldn't you? If you couldn't find them, think how frustrated your readers will be when they try!
In an environment where your paper is competing with the millions of others that form the literature explosion, can you really afford to hide what you have to say?
THE ANALYTICAL OUTLINE
A recent innovation in the business and technical writing world is the Executive Summary. It's designed to avoid the tantrums busy executives throw when they can't find what they're looking for quickly. It takes all of a report's important results and conclusions and puts them up front on one page where they can be easily found. What a remarkable idea! Executive summaries work just fine, but such fixes wouldn't be necessary if reports were informatively organized in the first place.
Here's a different kind of structure for your reports and papers.
It's called THE ANALYTICAL OUTLINE. It looks like this:
THE ANALYTICAL OUTLINE
1. The problem (What have you done and why?)
2. Your results and conclusions (What did you find out, and why is it important? What's your solution to the problem?)
3. Your recommendations (What should the reader do about your results?)
4. The two or three major details of your analysis, investigation or development (Here are the details of what I did and how I did it.)
5. Your conclusions (Restatement, in which you answer these questions: SO WHAT? and WHO CARES?)
6. Appendices (The rest of the details)
Notice that explicit BACKGROUND and INTRODUCTION sections are missing. Such material is most effective if it is interspersed in sections 1, 2 and 4 to contrast with and reinforce the new developments, as you will learn to do in Chapter 13 about paragraphs. Here are just a few advantages of the Analytical Outline over the traditional one:
1. Your readers can find what they're looking for quickly and easily ....namely what's new... without skipping to the end. They can quit reading after the first couple of paragraphs and be rewarded in proportion to the time they have spent. In fact, the first three sections are so self-sufficient, they can stand alone and even be distributed separately to readers who don't care so much about the details.
2. When you begin with the concrete results, you immediately get your readers' attention, instead of boring them with a general introduction.
3. You can immdediately expose your readers to your point of view, so that they can judge all that follows in the light of your conclusions. If you don't, then they judge what you say according to their own preconceptions.
4. Your article tends to be shorter and easier to write. After you write the first three sections (which should be short and sweet), the rest is just supporting detail. You're much less tempted to pad those details after you've given the punch line away.
5. By putting most of the minor details in appendices, you avoid cluttering your writing and obscuring your main points. The readers who are interested in those details can find them more easily, too.
6. You distinguish between the order of doing and the order of reporting.
HOW TO GET STARTED
If you have trouble deciding how to answer the first question -- telling what's important and why -- write a cover letter to accompany your paper or report. Address this letter to the person you most want to understand and appreciate your message. You have only one page to get it across. When you finish, you will have your first couple of sections.
Here's another exercise to help you organize facts into a coherent, logical and informative structure.
This is a list of key sentences from a research paper on a new kind of ocean buoy that echoes its drift speed when interrogated by a special radar. The sentences are jumbled up, so they're out of order. Your job is to reorder them so they conform, as nearly as you can make them, to the Analytical Outline. You don't have to rewrite the sentences; just list the new sentence number in the blank ahead of the old.When you finish, read the sentences in the new order to make sure they follow the Analytical Outline. Can you see what a difference you can make in clarity, simply by rearranging the sentences in a logical order?
Find a paper you have written or are working on. Let's find out how it is organized. First, number each paragraph sequentially. Then look at each paragraph and label it according to the subjects described in the Analytical Outline above. For example, write a "3" next to a paragraph if its content falls under "recommendations," or a "5" if it seems to fall under "conclusions." If it does not fall into any of the Analytical categories, put an "X" next to that paragraph. Then list those labels below in the order in which they appear in your paper, for example 4, 4, 3, 5, 2, X, 6, etc.
Is your outline Analytical or Traditional or something else?
Now rearrange the paragraphs you just classified to make your paper's organization more Analytical. Put all the (1)s together, then all the (2)s, etc. If a paragraph or section does not fit any category (X), leave it out.
YOUR NEW PARAGRAPH ORDER:Now rearrange your paper according to this outline (cut and paste, if you want) and ask yourself if this new version gets your message across more effectively.
IT'S WHAT'S UP FRONT THAT COUNTS!
In this section, you'll learn how to write informative opening paragraphs -- the most important part of any writing you have to do.
Based on what your readers find in your title, abstract (if you have one) and opening paragraphs, they will decide whether to go on or not. If they don't, then you've lost them, no matter how important your message was. In other words, assume that you readers are buried in paper and that you have no more then a minute or two to get their attention and convince them that the rest of your paper is worth their time to read. So, in any kind of writing you do, you would do well to put a disproportionately large part of your work into your opening paragraphs.
The most informative opening transmits a very simple message: "I want you to know about something new that has happened. After I tell what has happened, I'll tell you why it's important, and then I'll give you the details."
In constructing an informative opening, you can learn a lot from the old questions every newspaper reporter learns to ask: WHO? WHAT? WHEN? WHERE? and WHY? For scientific and technical papers, however, the order of importance is shifted a bit. There, the WHAT and WHY (that is, the significance) of your result or development is usually of primary importance. The WHO, WHEN and WHERE are not usually what your audience wants most to know, so make them supporting details.
Another element, the HOW of your message, is usually more important in a technical paper than in a newspaper story, but it's not as important as the WHAT and WHY.
Basically, your first paragraphs should answer these questions:
What do you want your readers to know?
After this "punch line", begin to fill in the details, along the lines of the Analytical Outline.
Here are some other guidelines to follow as you put your opening paragraphs together:
Here's an exercise to help you apply these principles. These opening paragraphs for a product announcement are badly organized and are littered with useless details (which should come much later). Go through them and mercilessly cross out all the deadwood, leaving only the most important information about the what and why of the new product:
| 1. Production of a revolutionary new portable microcomputer, the GORN-3, has been announced
the the Data Products Department, Industrial Research Division, of the Megabux Corporation, a
Peoria-based electonics company with worldwide branches. The new machine, a product of three
years of intensive research, is housed in a tan, molded plastic case. It is small enough to fit under
an airplane seat and can be operated from internal battery packs.
2. Manufacturing has begun in the Megabux 75,000 square-foot factory in Uggabugga, Tanzania, where local labor costs are expected to keep the unit cost under $5000.
3. Each unit, which is one-third the size of a standard desktop computer, contains its own keyboard, video display and two diskette drives, which can store word-processing programs, text, accounting and scientific software, as well as 'space monsters.' The machine's advanced CPX-3000 operating system is compatible with many existing business and scientific software packages, but also features advanced graphics capabilities and a voice synthesizer.
4. Megabux president, I. C. Sparks reports hundreds of advance orders for the new product from business and industrial firms that see a wide variety of uses for a low-cost, portable microcomputer like the GORN-3. Deliveries are expected to begin this fall.
Now look at the opening paragraphs from a longer article you have written. Attach them here and go through the same weeding-out process, leaving only the essential what and why of your message. If you can't find that information in your opening paragraphs, add the appropriate sentences.
You can organize most of your writing tasks by answering the few questions in the Analytical Outline. The rest of your writing is just elaborating on that structure. You should spend most of your writing energy on the opening paragraphs of your paper, because they get the most exposure.
Notice that the parts of the Analytical Outline are not all the same size. Naturally, the details of what you did or found out will form the bulk of your final text. How do you organize them? In the next lesson, you'll learn how to think more carefully about your readers' needs, so you can decide which details are most important (so you can put them first), which come next, and which you can safely leave out or put into appendices.
"Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it's not all mixed up." - Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, A. A. Milne