Well-organized writing conveys the maximum amount of information with the minimum amount of reader effort. Unfortunately, many writers (writer in this book refers to any professional who writes as part of his or her professional duties) pay insufficient attention to organizational issues, in part because figuring out how to improve a document’s structure is time-consuming and even painful. It is, however, utterly necessary.
Theoretically, document organization in the computer age should be better than it was in the age of the typewriter. After all, in those pre-computer days, if you had been typing a seven-page document and realized while typing the fifth page that the last paragraph on that page should actually have been in the middle of your second page, would you have started over and retyped all those pages? Maybe, maybe not. (If you aren’t old enough to recall the pre-computer days, you will need to use your imagination here.) The likelihood of your retyping would have depended on factors such as the importance of the document, your degree of motivation, the proximity of your deadline, and your typing speed.
In the computer age, however, if you realize that a paragraph on page 5 should be on page 2, it will take you only a few seconds to move it (plus, of course, the amount of time needed to smooth out the word choice in both locations so that everything flows properly).
Theory and practice do not always coincide, unfortunately, and in fact, the quality of document organization seems to have declined rather dramatically over the past generation. The problem may be in part that people know they can move things around easily. Consequently, instead of thinking through structure and content before they begin to type — as they would have done in the typewriter days — many businesspeople have a writing process something like this: Turn on the computer, start typing, keep typing until several pages have been completed, go to lunch with the intention of revising afterwards, return to one’s desk, read over the document, decide it’s not so bad after all, add a hard return in the middle of an extra-long paragraph, add a few transitional expressions to make the ideas flow better (an in addition here, a however there, a moreover somewhere else), run the grammar-checker and spell-checker, attach the document to an e-mail, and press “Send.”
Now, transitional expressions are wonderful things, but they are wholly inadequate as cures for bad organization. Adding a furthermore to the beginning of a sentence to try to make it sound as though it is related to the previous sentence, even when it really isn’t, is like putting a small adhesive bandage on a gaping wound. That simply won’t suffice; the wound must first be treated.
To fix organizational weaknesses, the writer must look very carefully at content, independent of word choice, and consider whether the way a given piece of writing is structured really makes sense. This chapter covers an array of organizational issues applicable to diverse business documents.