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How To Organize Information

August 2002

Gary Blake provides writing tips for today's business professional, explaining how to properly organize information by writing with the reader in mind.

by Gary Blake
The Communication Workshop

How you organize your material determines, to a large extent, whether you effectively communicate your main points to your readers. People want to get to your main message without wading through lots of extraneous material, and they like to know where they can find information they're expecting, whether it's figures, a list of issues, or your opinions. If your readers believe the information is important to them, they may read your report even if it's poorly written. If it's poorly organized, they won't.

That's why warm-up paragraphs can usually be deleted (or at least moved from the beginning of a memo, report, or letter). Frequently, the warm-up paragraph presents background material that, while relevant, does not contain the main news or item of interest and therefore is unessential.

Background material may be valuable, but don't lead with it, or you'll lose your reader. Your first paragraph should engage the reader by arousing curiosity or presenting important news in a clear, compelling fashion. This means (1) starting with what's important to readers, not what's important to you, (2) organizing the material like a newspaper article—in order of most important to least important, and (3) knowing the way your reader thinks about the subject. All of this also means, of course, knowing your audience.

Stand in the Reader's Shoes

How do you organize your writing according to the way your reader thinks about the subject? By putting yourself in the reader's shoes and asking, What about this subject concerns my readers most and would gain their interest?

Consider what you would do if assigned to write an overview of your organization. If you were aiming the presentation primarily at new employees, you might start with a history of the company, present an overall corporate philosophy or mission statement, then discuss the various divisions or subsidiaries and the role or purpose of each. Within each division, you would cover the major products and the market for each.

On the other hand, if the primary audience was investors, you would begin with an overview of the current year's sales and financial performance, compare it with previous years to show growth and progress, then break down sales and contributions to the bottom line by division or product line.

In some situations, you may not be familiar with the audience you'll be writing for, or you might be writing a single document appealing to multiple audiences. If you are unsure as to how your reader thinks about the subject, choose an organizational structure that logically fits the material.

Some common formats include:

  • Order of location. A memo on the status of your company's offices could be organized by state or by region.
  • Chronological order. This format presents the facts in the order in which they happened. Many case histories, feature stories, annual reports, corporate biographies, and minutes of major meetings are written this way.
  • Problem/solution. Another format appropriate to case histories and many types of reports, this one begins with "Here's what the problem was" and ends with "Here's how we solved it, and here are the results we achieved."
  • Inverted pyramid. This is the newspaper style of news reporting in which the lead paragraph summarizes the story, giving the reader the who, what, when, where, why, and how; the paragraphs following present the key facts in order of decreasing importance. You can use this format in journal articles, company newsletters, press releases, memos, letters, and reports.
  • Deductive order. Start with a generalization—a theme you want to support or a point you want to make—then support it with as many facts and observations as possible. Scientists use this format in research papers that begin with the main thesis or finding and then state the supporting evidence. Sales managers and copywriters use it in preparing persuasive sales letters.
  • Inductive order. Begin with specific instances and examples and then lead the reader to the idea or general principle the evidence supports or suggests.
  • Priority sequence. Rank recommendations, problems, concerns, issues, or other items from the most important to the least important—an ideal format for writing a letter or memo recommending a series of steps or actions.

An overall way to organize material that is meant to inform readers is to use a five-step sequence: Executive Summary, Background, Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendations. This sequence forces you to get to the news quickly, position background as secondary material, separate fact from opinion, and move to the next step instead of just fading out.

Executive Summary

An executive summary can be a sentence, a short paragraph, or a section of a document, depending on the size of the document. In a short letter or memo, it may be just a sentence or two; in a report, it may be a section that precedes the main document.

Here's an executive summary that takes four lines (one paragraph) to get to the point:

We have received your correspondence in regard to repairs on your home following the July 1 storm. The estimates you have submitted for repairs to your home were not itemized. Without an itemized estimate we are unable to compare your contractor's estimate to our estimate on a line-by-line basis. We will therefore need itemized estimates from your contractor in order to locate any discrepancies between our estimate and the estimates provided by your contractor.

This paragraph does get to the point ... although it takes a while to do so. The writer could have written:

Since you submitted estimates for repairs to your home that were not itemized, and since we must compare your contractor's estimate to that of ours, please have your contractor send us itemized estimates so that we can identify any discrepancies.

Here's another example of a writer who starts with an Executive Summary that gets right to the matter at hand:

After our review of the report, we have questions regarding the length of time to report the claim and the possibility that this is not a sudden and accidental loss....

Background

The writer's next paragraph fills in some Background information:

The HO-9 policy will cover sudden and accidental losses caused from water that escapes from a plumbing system. The loss to the foundation would also be covered.

The writer then goes on to pose the questions that need to be answered if coverage exists (To me, that section is the Findings—the matter or problem that is at the heart of the letter.) This writer is proceeding in an organized way. Here's an example of a typical first paragraph in a denial letter without a summary:

I am writing to you in regard to the loss that occurred on the above-captioned date.

Where does the reader learn that the company is unable to extend coverage for his loss? The sixth paragraph! Some insurance examiners have said that they do not start with the denial of coverage because they are afraid that the insured will stop reading or rip up the letter, so they ease into it. All the while the reader is simply trying to get to the "bottom line" and is frustrated by the time it takes to get to the end of the letter.

One insurance company's form letter for property denial gets right to the point in the first sentence: "We have carefully reviewed your claim and advise that we are unable to make payment."

Save any details about the history of the subject for the next section, Background. Remember to think about your reader, and only put in what you believe is necessary. You can always include attachments of previous communications instead of overloading a document with old information. In the same letter, which only touches on the loss in the first paragraph, the writer goes into background information, a rehashing of the events of the claim:

I inspected your roof on March 8, 1998. Upon my inspection, I discovered damage to your roof from the individual you hired to remove the ice and snow from your roof. I also discovered granules that had come loose from the shingles over a period of time....

This background information would have more of a context if the reader was first informed of the main news: the claim is being denied.

Findings

Your next section, Findings, should include any facts you've uncovered. This should be objective information, not colored by opinions. The Findings of this letter are a series of statements that speak to the issue at hand: what the policy says about this type of loss:

Your homeowners policy excludes coverage for damage due to wear and tear and deterioration. Some of the shingles on your roof have granules that are coming off and this is due to wear and tear of the shingle itself.…

Conclusions

Since any conclusions are opinions formed as a result of your consideration of the facts, these should come in the next section, followed by any recommendations you have for further action. For example, in the same letter, the next paragraphs spell out the writer's conclusions: that the policy language does not cover the wear and tear and that the damage done by the individual who removed the ice is not covered by the insured's policy. This conclusion is followed, appropriately by the recommendation:

In view of the above, we are unable to extend coverage for this loss. If you have any questions or further information regarding this claim, please call me at.…

Recommendations

Finally! Insurance writers should take a hint from journalists who've been trained to put the who, what, where, when, and why right in the first paragraph of their news stories.

If your claims, loss control, underwriting, or customer service professionals "just start writing" before they have mapped out an organizational plan, they will continue to alienate customers and waste time in getting the information they need. That's why improved writing and organizational skills should be at the top of any insurance professional's training "to-do" list.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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