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Seven principles of structured writing

Different methods of structured writing use different terminologies but most of them approach the task of writing with the same basic principles. These are:
1. Analysing audience and purpose
2. Chunking
3. Hierarchy
4. Labelling
5. Consistency
6. Integrated graphics
7. Accessible details.

Analysing audience and purpose


Before you start writing you must know (or make assumptions about) the following:
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What do you want them to get out of the document?
  • What do you want them to do with the information?
  • Are they supposed to read the entire document, or just parts of it?
  • Do they need access points for quick reference?
The reason these questions must be answered first is that the answers determine how your document should be organised and written. This is possibly the most important key to user-friendly documents: let the readerís needs and the documentís purpose dictate what you write and how you write it.

You must know the skills and qualifications of your audience to know what kind of language is appropriate.

You must know whether you want to inform your audience, persuade them, move them to action, or guide them in carrying out a task. Each of these aims calls for a different way of using language.

You must know whether your audience is expected just to read the document and then dispose of it, or use the document to perform a task, or refer to it occasionally. If it is for reference, there must be easily found entry points. If it is a performance aid, there must be concise, easily followed instructions for each task.

Above all, you must state in the document itself what its purpose is so that its readers know what they should be getting out of it.

Chunking

Chunking means breaking up the topic into discrete units. Some writers can only do this after theyíve written everything down in one great outpouring. Others do the chunking first, as an outlining exercise. It doesnít matter, so long as it happens before the information is presented to a reader. Readers are overwhelmed by long unbroken streams of text. Research proves that reader attention and comprehension rapidly decline in the absence of signposts (headings) and manageable chunks.

Do your chunking on the basis of the types of information in the document. All information may be classified as belonging to one of seven types.

Seven information types

The seven information types are shown the following table.


INFORMATION TYPE CHARACTERISTICS
Procedures These are instructions for doing something.
Process descriptions These are explanations of how something is done.
Structures These show what a thing consists of.
Concepts These are definitions or examples, or combinations of both.
Principles These are rules.
Facts These consist of objective information regarding physical characteristics.
Classifications These deal with types and categories.

Presentation methods for each information type

Writers learn that once they have classified their information into these seven categories, problems of presentation start to disappear. There are established ways of presenting each of these information types. The following are examples.


INFORMATION TYPE BEST PRESENTATION METHOD
Classifications Lists and tables
Structures Charts and drawings
Procedures Action tables (concise, sequentially numbered instructions, each beginning with an action word)
Hierarchy

Hierarchical presentation begins at the top level and works toward the lowest level. Begin with an overview of the entire topic, identifying each chunk, then describe each chunk in detail, one at a time. Each chunk may in turn consist of smaller chunks.

Labelling

Each chunk must have a label. Labels are descriptive headings. They prepare the reader for what is to come and they give the reader a way of locating specific information. Labels should be specific and informative.

Consistency

Consistency means doing things the same way throughout the document. That way, you make it easy for the reader to follow the text. Consistency takes many forms, including:
  • consistency in presentation (titles, headings, sub-headings)
  • consistency in terminology
  • consistency in typography and layout
In some cases, consistency means frequent repetition of some terms. Thatís fineórepeat as necessary. In business and technical documents, thoughtful repetition is an aid to comprehension. If you mean the same thing, use the same term. You slow the reader down when you use different words to mean the same thing.

Integrated graphics

This simply means placing charts and drawings adjacent to the text that relates to them, instead of having them off in another part of the document.

Accessible details

Give your readers the option of reading to a desired level of detail. Donít force them to sift through detail in order to find the main point. But do put the important details where they can be found if needed. Use chunking and labels to separate main points from supporting details.

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Brett Coster maintains this page.

Last updated 26 March 1998.

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