Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Some people write compelling prose. You read the first sentence, and you’re captivated. You find yourself pulled in and reading all
the way to the end, even if it’s not a subject that you expected to interest you. Sometimes, the author’s “voice” is what pulls you
through, but much more often, it’s that the piece was carefully crafted around an organizing principle.
You can tell whether
writing is well organized using four tests: *
- The subject is stated clearly and briefly at the outset.
- Key generalizations summarize
major points at emphatic spots and make an adequate outline of the work.
- Subheadings make an adequate outline of the work and display
a linear thought process.
- Paragraphs, major sections, and the whole piece are dominated by an easily identified order.
are nine common ways to organize material. Think about your topic and your audience, and see which one is most likely to provide compelling
- Classifications: Group terms or concepts by shared characteristics. Classes should not overlap, all the classes together
should complete the topic or concept, the classes should be comparable with some common elements, and the classes should be presented
in a logical order (like alphabetical, most common to least-common, or time and space).
- Compare and Contrast: Each aspect of a topic
is covered completely before moving on to the next aspect. The introduction and conclusion address the pros and cons of each aspect,
or of the end result of the accumulation of aspects. Make sure that your discussions of each aspect are strictly parallel (if you
talk about cost in one discussion, be sure it’s in all the other discussions, for example).
- Definitions: Place the term or concept
in a class or group of related things, and then distinguish each term or concept in some way (by refining the class, perhaps).
or Cause-to-Effect: Effect-to-Cause states the conclusion first and then goes about proving it; Cause-to-Effect make the argument
first. Use deductive logic (from general to specific, making an argument from premises) or inductive logic (from specific to general,
making an argument from evidence). It is usually clearest to state your conclusion on both sides of the argument.
- Funnel: The topic
is covered in a broad and general way, and then discussed again in increasing levels of detail. This is a useful organization for
placing things in context, and is the opposite of the Pyramid. Use this style most effectively in introductions, conclusions, and
- Illustration: Use an image, metaphor, example, or analogy to clarify a complex concept. Be sure that your illustration
is not evidence. A piece entirely organized around this principle will have an “aha!” moment at the end.
- Problem-Solution: State the
problem and then the solution. State any deviations, significance, or relationships in the conclusion.
- Psychological Order: The topic
is discussed in such a way as to intrigue the reader, aid memory, or overcome resistance. Make your points in order of decreasing
(or increasing) importance, or in an order likely to persuade or please your readers.
- Pyramid: Describe the whole topic briefly, and
then repeat it in more detail. You may end up covering the topic several times, in increasing levels of detail or covering different
aspects. The pyramid is very common in newspaper journalism, where readers may read only the first paragraph, and is the opposite
of the Funnel.
- Space, Time, or Function: The parts of your topic are discussed in a logical order (left-to-right, first-to-last, functional
importance). This is a good choice for building up a section of code, where A connects to B, and so forth. You might use this style
only for the construction portion of your work.
This blog entry was organized using Psychological order for the introduction,
Function order for the list of identifying factors, and then Definitions were organized alphabetically. The conclusion is
organized by Space order (top to bottom).
* This list is adapted from “Scientific and Technical Writing and Editing”,
by Susan Schwartz, 1993, self-published.