Posted by: wordsmithsuk | December 13, 2010

Organising and structuring information in a business document

Structure is vitally important – without it your reader will struggle to follow what you are trying to say. Proper structuring, on the other hand, will result in a coherent, effective document and will save you and your editors hours of writing and revisions.

When I write something, I often start by drawing a spider diagram or Mind Map. These are very effective ways to plan and structure longer texts. Start by putting the topic in a box in the centre of the page, then draw lines to branch out from it to your main ideas. Each idea is expressed in terms of a single word or short phrase – no actual writing of sentences is allowed at this stage. Leave space to add new information and make links between the main ideas.

Here is an example of a spider diagram created to plan a 40-page report.

When you use a spider diagram or Mind Map, you are doing all your thinking before you actually start writing, rather than during the process of writing. The result is that you can develop all your ideas and see where and how they relate to each other before committing them to paper.

With a spider diagram or Mind Map, order and organisation seem to take care of themselves. When you’ re happy that you have included all the points that you need to make, and that your points are placed under the correct headings, you can start to create a linear structure for your document. First write the title of the document on a blank page on your computer screen. Then decide which paragraph or sub-section needs to go first, and write an appropriate sub-heading. What comes next? Write that on your page and so on until you have a complete outline structure for your document. In this way you know exactly what is going to go in each paragraph or subsection.

Even if you don’t use a spider diagram, create a simple outline by putting the message at the top of your blank sheet/document, followed by each key point as a separate sentence spaced down the page. If necessary, add a summary, an action point or recommendation at the end – what is to be done, by whom, when and where? Then check that the outline achieves the specified  purpose of the document.

When you are structuring your document, you will find it useful to be aware of the psychology of reading. Because the attention span of most readers is quite short, you need a strong beginning that will capture their attention and tell them its purpose. You must write the most important points first, because a lot of readers will give up before they get to the end of the document. Write the less important points further down the document – and it’s often a good idea to repeat the main points right at the end.

It’s a good idea to leave your outline for at least a day so that you come back fresh to rearrange the headings and add new ones. Lots of important links and ideas may occur to you. It’s useful if you can slot these into the right places before you actually start writing.

This process of organising and structuring information is relatively quick and easy. The great thing is that you really feel you’ve achieved something even though you’ve hardly written a single sentence  – yet.

How do you make sure that your documents achieve their purpose? I’d love to hear your ideas and your experience.

For more information on how to write effective business documents see our audio self-study package ‘Effective Business Writing for Success’. Buy it now from Amazon at less than £10 or get the download version (even cheaper) from the Word Smiths’ website uk.


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