Organizing technical content


Setting a clear path

Organizing information is about more than writing catchy headings and designing a good table of contents. Every time you write a paragraph or layout a page, you are organizing information.

Whether you’re chunking blocks of content, or designing the flow of information on a specific page, the objective is the same. You want to help each reader find a path to the answers they need.

To do this, you need to organize the information in a logical and consistent way. If you’ve gathered information on a wide range of independent subjects, this can be harder than it sounds.

The Table of Contents

When it comes to arranging chunks of content, any organization is better than none. In some cases, the best choice may even be to alphabetize the topics. At least with an alphabetical list, it is easy to find information. You can include an index at the back of the document to capture alternative terminology.

But in most cases, there are better ways to structure the information. In the best business writing, the table of contents gives a summary of the content inside. If the document is a procedure, you can see the main tasks involved. If it’s a series of lessons, you can see how the competencies build. If it’s a report, you can see the main points that inform the recommendations.

The table of contents gives the reader a framework not only for finding information, but for understanding it too. This type of organization is intuitive. If it’s done well enough, all the reader needs to do is grasp the logic. After the reader has looked at the table of contents once, they may never have to look at it again. That’s how clear and easy to follow the organization needs to be.

Think like a reader

I don’t know about you, but the textbooks I read as a child in school were usually organized by a taxonomy of subjects. If I wanted to find anything specific, I had to flip to the index and hope for the best. The problem with organizing content by a taxonomy of subjects is that the structure generally only makes sense after you’ve read the content. The organization is based on how the experts remember what they know.

Business writing takes a more direct approach. It is organized not by how the experts remember, but by what the readers need. In some cases, a question-and-answer format works best. This goes against what you may have learned about avoiding repetition, since answers may repeat similar content, but for the readers this may be the most direct way of accessing the information they need.

Other content may be organized chronologically by workflow. This is often the best way of organizing procedural or task-based content. The headings may be worded like the steps of a procedure and may even be numbered.

The key to finding the right organization is to learn what the readers need. Once you know that, you can design the information so that it takes the readers directly to what they need.

Organizing content within the chunks

The overall structure is not the only way business content differs from the textbooks we may have read in the past. In business writing, the conclusion is often at the start of each section. If the document is in a question and answer format, the first paragraph will give an abbreviated answer and the remaining paragraphs will provide more detail.

Business writing also leverages the power of formatting. Short paragraphs and lists help to make the content more scannable, so does putting tips in a text box. Also, don’t neglect the power of a well-designed table or infographic. These formatting powerhouses can condense pages of text into a more readable form. When it comes to business writing, white space is never empty. It gives space to the growing understanding of the reader.

You’ve heard already from me that a business writer is a negotiator and a salesperson. A business writer needs the eye of a visual artist too. Everything returns to the central purpose, which is to help readers find the information they need quickly.

© Debbie Bateman 2019. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

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