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Word Matters: Get Organized!

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

Of all the challenges in writing, one of the biggest is organization. And it’s a particular challenge when putting together big projects like curricula and longer reports.

Organized writing reflects clear thinking, and clarity is essential to effective communication, not to mention engaging your audience. As Kate Kiefer with the English Department at Colorado State University says, "If the organization does not provide readers with the information they are looking for in an orderly manner, they will quickly lose interest."

So how can you make sure your writing is well ordered?

Mary VitcendaMaking an outline ahead of time has never worked for me, and I don’t think it works for a lot of other people, either. That’s because writing is a process of discovery, and you may discover a lot of things you didn’t even think about when you wrote the outline! The University of North Carolina Writing Center recommends a technique for ordering your writing once you have a draft that is called "reverse outlining."

Besides helping you organize your writing, reverse outlining is a way to spot those places where your draft has too much or too little information and where you need to trim or add words. In other words, it’s a way to revise your first draft, which is so, so important. Here's how reverse outlining works.

First, read your draft — preferably out loud — noting “chunks” of information about a specific topic or idea. Write a short description, for your own reference, next to each chunk. (You could either put the descriptions in comment boxes, or print out your draft and make hand-written notes.) Next, take a separate piece of paper or create a new Word document and list your descriptions in the order they appear in your draft. That’s your reverse outline.

Now, ask yourself two key sets of questions and make a list of any issues you find:
  • Does the reverse outline flow? Is it clear how one idea connects to the next? Is there anything out of order or unclearly labeled? (Your audience needs signposts like section titles and sub-titles to keep them on track.) For example, in a curriculum I recently edited, information about suggested workshop locations was in the middle of a section titled “Potential Workshop Audiences.” While the two subjects are related, potential audiences and venues are two different things and should be organized (and labeled) accordingly.
  • Are there gaps in logic? Is any information missing or implied but not directly stated? Is everything there that should be there to support your main point (your thesis) and your learning objectives, as well as provide basic instructions? Remember to step into your audience members’ shoes to answer those questions — they don’t know everything you and colleagues do, and they’ll need help connecting the dots. That could be a simple as remembering to provide precise directions on ordering lesson materials or printing out handouts in a facilitator’s guide, or adding a title and organization next to someone’s name in a report.
After this step, rearrange the chunks in an order that makes the most sense. Put chunks together that sound similar. Try inserting headings to help you sort your material, and then take them out later. Finally, dig into your draft and begin fixing the issues you noted on your list.

Once that's done — congratulations! You will have met the challenge of organizing your writing and done the heavy work of revising your first draft. There’s still more to do, but for now enjoy the peace that comes with greater clarity.
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