Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.
During my first year of teaching, any paper I received went into one small, black tray that sat on my desk. The pile grew daily and contained everything including papers I needed to grade, memos from our principal, lesson plan ideas, and worksheets I needed to copy. The organizational system seemed great at first, because if I needed anything, I knew exactly where to find it - sort of.
The problem with my organization became apparent about two weeks into the school year when my tray began to overflow, and it would take me hours to find something I needed. I realized that putting everything into one spot without any directional hint as to where each item was located only led to wasted time and frustration.
Thankfully, a friend of mine rescued me from my organizational nightmare by introducing me to file folders. Soon, I had a filing cabinet full of folders for lesson plans, worksheets, graded papers, and memos. The system made my life so much easier because I could easily see in big, bold letters what I had and where my items were located.
Writing needs the same sort of organizational system as we do. If we simply place everything we want to say in one large paragraph, it becomes difficult for the reader to know where each piece of information is located, and soon the reader experiences information overload. We must organize, or arrange in a clear, ordered manner, our writing so that readers know what information we are providing and can quickly access the information.
To improve organization in technical writing, include the following items as part of your document:
- Headings and subheadings
- Typographical cues
- Table of contents
- List of figures
Headings and Subheadings
A heading is a title that indicates the topic of a section of text. Headings provide readers with a visual cue to an important topic and help break the information in a document into smaller chunks. Styles for headings will vary from having every letter capitalized to being centered on the page, depending on the document. However, all headings and subheadings should be bolder in color and larger in font than the surrounding text.
A heading is not needed for every paragraph. Instead, group similar information in two or three paragraphs together under one heading, and try to limit the number of headings you include to two to three per page. If you need to add in more distinctions, you can include subheadings for paragraphs between headings that provide more specific information about the paragraphs but have a slightly smaller font and boldness than the original heading.
When including headings, make sure that they are written in short, specific phrases that are parallel in structure and are self-explanatory. You should not include articles (such as a, an, or the) or pronouns. Let's examine some good and bad headings:
- 'This paragraph is about the effects of sunlight on plant growth.'
The problem with this headline is that it's too long. The headline should simply say, 'Effects of Sunlight on Plant Growth.'
- 'Background on Plants'
Though short, this headline does not provide the specific details a reader needs in order to know what information the paragraph will contain. A better headline would be, 'Life Cycles of Plants.'
- 'The Food of Plants and How They Process It'
This headline contains an article ('The') and two pronouns ('They' and 'It'), both of which you want to stay away from including as part of a headline. Instead, consider making this headline more concise by writing, 'How Plants Process Food.'
Headlines are an important part of organizing your technical document because they help divide long text into easy-to-understand chunks and they allow the reader to quickly skim the main topics and find information they need. They act as the folders under which you can file information within a document.
I teach high school English and, though I hate to admit it, I know that sometimes class can get a little boring. So, when I find my students beginning to nod off, I yell out random words, like 'burp' or 'zombie.' The kids immediately jolt upright and want to know what's going on. The verbal cue is enough to help them refocus on what we are reading, at least for a minute.
Reading a long string of text can be very difficult. Minds start to wander and pretty soon, important information is lost in the document. So sometimes, we need to provide a visual cue to the reader so that they can be jolted out of their brain fog and refocus on the information we are providing. That's what typographical cues do. Typographical cues are textual effects that emphasize a point. Typographical cues can include any of the following:
- Italicizing words
- Making words bolder in font
- Underlining words
- Changing the font color
- Capitalizing words
Experiments on students' response to typographical cues have been conducted, and the results show that text that includes typographical cues was easier to remember and focus on than text without such cues.
The key to using typographical cues is to choose carefully what you want to emphasize. Adding too many cues can be distracting and can prevent readers from knowing what's really important. It's best to choose no more than one sentence or phrase in each paragraph on which to use a typographical cue, and not every paragraph has to have one. Also, try to use the same type of cue throughout the document instead of switching between italics, underlines, and all caps. This will provide consistency to your readers so that they know when they see the cue that it is important information.
Table of Contents
Can you imagine if books didn't have a table of contents? You would have to shuffle through each page to determine where a chapter started. This wastes valuable time and can be very frustrating. Longer technical documents can benefit from a table of contents as well.
A table of contents is a list of the sections of a document by the order in which they appear. The table of contents is located at the front of the document and should provide page numbers to help the reader easily find each section. A table of contents will help a reader quickly and easily find information, especially in a longer document. It is highly suggested that any document over ten pages include a table of contents.
List of Figures and Index
As a way to keep your reader's attention, you may want to include figures, charts, or images that provide a visual explanation of the text. If you include several of these elements, you will need to include a list of figures. This list should be located immediately after the table of contents and should provide the title of the figures and page number where the figure is located in the document.
Finally, if your document contains important information on several different topics, you may want to include an index. An index is a list of topics covered in a document and the page numbers where the topic is discussed in the document. An index is usually located at the end of the document. It allows a reader to quickly find information on a specific topic within a longer document.
Keeping your document organized will help your audience identify what's important, locate information quickly, and remember the information in the future. Include the following elements to help keep your document organized:
- Headings and subheadings
- Typographical cues
- Table of contents
- List of figures
Using these strategies will ensure that your document is arranged in a clear, orderly manner for your audience.
When this lesson ends, you could showcase the following abilities:
- Convey the importance of keeping a document organized
- List elements that add organization to documents
- Recognize the usefulness of headings, subheadings, a table of contents, a list of figures and an index
- Provide examples of typographical cues
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