Power Tools: Organization

The following section was originally part of Power Tools for Technical Writing, published by Harcourt, but taken out because of length considerations. This section was part of a chapter made up of the following:
  1. Content—provides strategies for thinking of useful content for writing projects, in other words, developing the content of a project.
  2. Organization—provides strategies for reviewing the sequence and arrangement of the contents of a writing project.
  3. Transitions—provides review strategies for checking the coherence of a writing project, in other words, the "flow" of the project as created by the transitions.

As a writer, you need some strategies for reviewing the organization of your writing projects, how topics are sequence, which subtopics you cover, and what patterns of organization to use.

How Do You Organize It?

Are you the type of writer that has plenty to say but fears that there is no logic or order to the way you present that material? Organizing the material covered in technical documents can be a big problem for people who have lots to say and lots of enthusiasm and who are eager to show off their knowledge. Planning the organization for a document ahead of time is called outlining. This section focuses on checking the organization of a written draft you've already written. Outlining can only take you so far—as you write, you are doing plenty of additional on-the-spot organizing at the micro level.

Review of Organizational Patterns

In a nutshell, here's what you do to review organization: identify the topic of each individual sentence, paragraph, or section; identify the pattern used by that sequence or topics or that should be used; and then rearrange as necessary. You can do this organizational review at the paragraph level, looking at the topic of each sentence and evaluating the sequence of those topics; at the section level, identifying the topic of each paragraph within the section and evaluating the sequence of those topics; and at the whole-document level, identifying the topic of each section and evaluating the sequence of those topics.

Obviously, being able to identify topics, perceive the organizational pattern, and being able to spot elements out of sequence is the key to reviewing the organization of a document. Commonly used organizational patterns include:

Organizational pattern Description
Chronological; temporal; process A common pattern is the "temporal," or chronological. Sequencing chunks of information as they occur in time can sneak in in subtle ways. For example, the standard organization of research reports is essentially chronological: begin with the problem, review the current knowledge, describe the experimental setup, report the data, draw conclusions about the data.
Spatial Descriptions can be organized according to the spatial relationship of the parts of the objects: for example, left to right, top to bottom, outer to inner. (If you arrange according to when the parts of an object are used in a process, that's a chronological pattern.)
General > specific Moving from general to specific is another common organizational pattern. For example, if you start by defining black holes and then move into the process by which they occur, you're using a general > specific pattern.
Specific > general If you want to create a little mystery and intrigue, start with specifics and lead up to the generality.
Simple > complex Sequencing information from simple to complex is another common pattern. In instructions, for example, explain simple tasks first before the harder ones.
Fundamental > advanced Some topics are logically more basic than others. For example, you must define something before you can discuss its types.
Theory > applications A common pattern is to explain the theory and then move onto its applications. To show people how to finetune color in graphics, discuss concepts involving color, hue, saturation, and intensity before discussing how to use a software application to achieve those effects.
Least important > most important (or vice versa) If you present a list of reasons why your organization should be selected to do a project, you can begin with the least powerful and build cumulatively toward the most powerful. Or the opposite pattern can be effective: get readers' attention with your most convincing argument and then "lock" them in—"seal the deal"—with the rest of your arguments.
Description > operation You can arrange by starting with a description of the object (the thing at rest) and then moving onto the operation of the object (the thing in motion).

Organization Review

Use the extended definition of nanotechnology to explore this process of reviewing the organization. Remember that any decisions about organizing or reorganizing a document must be based on audience and purpose.

Review organization at the whole-document level. Begin an organization review "at the top" and work your way down. Start by considering the organization of the largest chunks of information—for example, sections.

  1. Identify the topics of those largest chunks. If there is an outline or if there are headings—that makes it easier!

    The nanotechnology definition contains an introduction (chunk 1) followed by a basic explanation with comparison (chunk 2), discussion of key components (chunk 3), followed by applications (chunk 4), followed a conclusion (chunk 5).

  2. Identify the logical pattern or patterns operating at that level.

    The five chunks pass the test for logical sequencing: we start with a basic understanding of nanotechnology (chunks 2 and 3), move onto to its potential applications (chunk 4), and conclude by explaining when these marvels may come about (chunk 5). Chunks 2 and 3 are properly sequenced too: readers have to know some basics before discussion of separate components will make any sense.

  3. If you find a section that is out of sequence, move it into the right spot within the document. If it just does not belong, pitch it!

    The top-level chunks in the nanotechnology definition are in a logical sequence. Imagine, though, the effect of moving chunks 2 and 3 to the end.

Review organization at the section level. Reviewing organization works the same way as you move downward to progressively smaller chunks within a document. In a "section-level" review, you would consider the organization of the subsections.

If you did a section review on the nanotechnology, you would test the sequencing of the two paragraphs under "Manufacturing Technologies: Current and Future"; the three paragraphs under "Molecular Manufacturing: Essential Components"; and the four paragraphs under "Molecular Manufacturing: Applications." For example, in the applications section, the progression from medical applications, through space-exploration applications, to computer applications involves drama. Medical applications are the most "far reaching," the most dazzling; space applications, a bit less so; and computer applications, still less so.

Review organization at the subsection level. Move down to the subsection level, and consider the organization of paragraphs within each subsection. In this case, a "subsection" contains only paragraphs. Obviously, the meaning of "subsection" depends on the size of the document you are working with.

In the nanotechnology definition, the subsections are the individual paragraphs. If the definition were considerably longer, many of the subsections might be made up of multiple paragraphs. For example, the subsection on medical applications could be made up of four or five paragraphs, rather its current single paragraph.

Review organization at the paragraph level. As you move down through the level of a document, you reach the individual paragraphs. Consider the organization of the sentences in each paragraph.

For example, consider the logic the sentences in this paragraph entitled "Self-replication." We begin with the need for a certain kind of component (chunk 1), followed by some historical background on von Neumann's ideas (chunk 2), followed by his definition of self-replicating machines (chunk 3). Next, we get into Drexler's ideas about the design and operation of such a component (chunk 4 through 6). We end with a contrast in the amount of time needed by a nonreplicating machine and a self-replicating machine. Again, the logic makes sense: start with problem, discuss a solution, provide some detail on the design and operation of that solution, and end by showing how well it solves the problem.

Reviewing a document this way probably seems unbearably tedious. Indeed it is when you go at it this painstakingly. But if you practice organization reviews a few times, the process becomes almost automatic. Take a look at the organization review of an excerpt on quantum mechanics: you may not know a thing about quantum mechanics, or even physics, but you can see how the organization works.


For practice and workshop material, see the exercises on organization to get some practice with paragraph organization.

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