Section 1.3

Order of Ideas

The order of ideas in a piece of business writing varies based on content and goals. However, your ideas should unfold in a way that is as easy as possible for the reader to understand.

For the body of your document — again, everything except your introduction and conclusion — it can be helpful to keep in mind these general organizational principles:

1. In many business documents, the most important ideas should appear first, with less important ideas appearing later.

Why? Your readers will be more likely to continue reading if the ideas seem significant. In addition, if a reader is unavoidably interrupted, at least he or she will have read your most important points.

2. In other documents, ideas form a logical chain.

With this structure, each point follows logically from the previous idea and leads logically to the next. In a technical report for a business audience, for example, you may be explaining complex ideas to people who are unfamiliar with your subject matter. To succeed, you must think like a teacher, introducing ideas one at a time to your audience and explaining each one clearly before you move on to the next. You may actually end up developing your most important idea last — after you have explained all the preceding concepts the reader must be familiar with in order to understand your big idea.

Training materials and user guides are examples of document types that frequently rely on this organizational scheme.

3. Content is often presented in chronological order.

Many business documents contain narratives, details, or examples that are best explained in chronological order. In other words, the writer starts at the beginning, proceeds to the middle, and concludes with the end. An anecdote or example can last a couple of sentences or multiple pages. Unfortunately, some businesspeople overuse chronological structures in cases where another organizational principle — principle 1 above, for example — might be better.

For instance, consider these organizational principles in the context of a specific document type: the executive biography. Suppose you went to a company’s website and found the biography for the firm’s chief financial officer. How would you expect that to be structured? Most important idea(s) first? Logical order? Chronological order?

Although some executive bios are structured chronologically — in other words, starting with where the person was born and then proceeding to educational background, first professional position, second professional position, and so on, until the writer reaches the current position — that is a fairly unusual approach. Most bios begin with the executive’s current role and then proceed backwards in time. Why? Because the current position is — unless the person is on a downward professional spiral! — generally the most senior, responsible, important position he or she has held. It is certainly the most important for the company on whose website the bio appears. Thus, the typical executive bio actually fits the first organizational scheme: most significant idea first.

Keep in mind that, especially with long documents, the choice of organizational structure is not necessarily an all-or-nothing decision. Principle ı may be at work in one section of a document, while 2 and 3 may dominate in other segments.