Learning about document structure

Last week, Radio National’s Life Matters program featured an interview with Cyril Peupion, author of ‘Work Smarter: Live Better’. Cyril was talking about people’s inefficiencies at work – particularly with tasks like email.

Cyril noted that most people start their working lives with little idea about how to work efficiently. It’s not something that’s taught either at school or university. Given the 1,131 email messages currently in my In Box, with 282 of them being unread, maybe I need to pay some attention to Cyril Peupion’s techniques. Instead, he got me thinking about writing and editing.

Many workplace writers feel that their writing is inefficient. They lack confidence, and they often base their writing on the examples of others, because they’re not sure what else to do.

I think that workplace writers struggle most with document structure. Maybe that’s because, like basic work efficiency, it’s something that’s not taught very well at school or university.

I mentioned this in a writing workshop this week, and most of the participants agreed: their education gave them little understanding about how to write at work – particularly how to develop a document structure.

I think that the best approach to document structure is to not worry about it too much during the initial drafting and content development stages. OK, it can be handy to plan a document with headings or ideas that are clustered or grouped into hierarchies. But this process doesn’t need to be too exact, and there’s no need to worry about getting the structure perfect at this stage.

Once the basic content is written down, writers have figured out what they want to say and how the argument will develop. This is the time to think carefully about structure. It makes sense to spend a lot of time revising that first draft, and to start by looking carefully at the order of the content. Is each idea in the best position? Is there any repetition? Should any ideas that are currently separated be moved more closely together? This is the time to shift around ideas and create new sections. Keep at it until there is a logical flow of ideas, presented in an order that will make the best possible impression on  readers.

For me, most of the thinking about document structure happens in the early stages of revising. A focus on document structure is, in part, a recognition that documents need to be revised multiple times, with a slightly different focus each time.

Now, I’d better implement some of Cyril Peupion’s advice and attack my In Box. Deal with each message once, and remove it from the In Box. Respond immediately if it will take less than 2 minutes. Otherwise, schedule time to do the work. Yeah, right … maybe I’ll start tomorrow.