Poor organization is the number one problem in letter writing. As editor Jerry Bacchetti points out, “If the reader believes the content has some importance to him, he can plow through a report even if it is dull or has lengthy sentences and big words. But if it’s poorly organized — forget it. There’s no way to make sense of what is written.”
Poor organization stems from poor planning. While a computer programmer would
never think of writing a complex program without first drawing a flow chart, he’d
probably knock out a draft of a user’s manual without making notes or an outline. In the same way, a builder who requires detailed blueprints before he lays the first brick will write a letter without really considering his message, audience, or purpose. Before you write, plan. As mentioned in the prewriting planning discussion earlier in this part, you should create a rough outline that spells out the contents and organization of your letter, memo, report, or proposal.
By the time you finish writing, some things in the final document might be different from the outline. That’s okay. The outline is a tool to aid in organization, not a commandment etched in stone. If you want to change it as you go along — fine. The outline helps you divide letters and larger writing projects into many smaller, easy-to-handle pieces and parts. The organization of these parts depends on the type of document you’re writing.
There are standard formats for writing meeting minutes, travel reports, and many other business memos and letters.
If the format isn’t strictly defined by the type of letter you are writing, select the organizational scheme that best fits the material. Some common formats include:
• Order of location. For example, a report recommending where to acquire new
warehouses and parts depots based on the distance from the central manufacturing operation and the location relative to key accounts.
• Order of increasing difficulty. Instructions often start with the easiest material and, as the user masters basic principles, move on to more complex
• Alphabetical order. A logical way to arrange a letter about vitamins (A, B, B1,
and so on) or a directory of company employees.
• Chronological order. Presents the facts in the order in which they happened.
Trip reports are sometimes written this way.
• Problem/solution. The problem/solution format begins with “Here’s what the
problem was” and ends with “Here’s how we solved it.”
• Inverted pyramid. The newspaper style of news reporting where the lead
paragraph summarizes the story and the following paragraphs present the
facts in order of decreasing importance. You can use this format in journal
articles, letters, memos, and reports.
• Deductive order. Start with a generalization, and then support it with
particulars. A lawyer might use this method in preparing to argue a case before
• Inductive order. Begin with specific instances, and then lead the reader to the
idea or general principles the instances suggest. A minister might talk about
different problems in the church caused by flaws in the building before asking
for contributions to build a new roof.
• List. This section is a list because it describes, in list form, the ways to
organize written material. A recent mailing from an electric company to its
business customers contained a sheet titled “Seven Ways to Reduce Your
Plant’s Electric Bill.”
Once you have an outline with sections and subsections, you can organize your information by putting it on index cards. Each card gets a heading outline. Or — using your personal computer — you can cut and paste the information within a wordprocessing file.