Organizing Technical Communication for Clarity

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

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.

Properly organizing technical communication is vital for the sake of clarity and audience understanding. Learn about the five organizational patterns for writing: spatial, chronological, order of importance, compare and contrast, and problem-solution. Updated: 10/31/2021

Predictable Patterns

Our daily lives are filled with patterns, from daily routines to natural wonders. Patterns can be seen in floor tiles, quilt squares, poetry rhyme schemes, and spider webs. Even when we read and write, we find patterns to our expressions. We're taught in elementary school that most stories follow the pattern of the plot pyramid, and when we wrote our first essays, we were taught to follow the five-paragraph pattern for writing.

Because patterns are a part of our everyday lives, we look for them to help us understand the world around us. Patterns help us process information more effectively because when we recognize a pattern, we begin to anticipate and prepare for the ideas that follow. When we can't find a pattern, we are left to feel as though something isn't right. Since patterns are a natural part of our lives, as writers, we need to provide patterns for our documents so that our readers will comprehend and retain the information within the document.

Patterns are as beneficial for the writer as they are for the reader. An organizational pattern provides a clear, logical method to present information. Patterns keep the writing focused, which helps the writer fulfill the intended purpose for the document.

Many organizational patterns exist, and the choice for which pattern to use depends on the audience and purpose of your document. Below are five organizational patterns that are common in technical writing:

  • Spatial
  • Chronological
  • Order of importance
  • Compare and contrast
  • Problem-solution

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  • 0:00 Predictable Patterns
  • 1:35 Spatial/Chronological Patterns
  • 3:45 Order of Importance Pattern
  • 5:10 Compare & Contrast Pattern
  • 6:20 Problem-Solution Pattern
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Spatial Pattern

Have you ever had to stop and ask for directions? If you are as directionally-challenged as I am, you have probably heard people tell you how to get somewhere based on the location of other places. For example, someone might tell you to 'turn by the gas station' or 'look for the big field of cows.' These directions use spatial relationships to help you navigate to your destination. Writing with a spatial pattern uses the concept of explaining how ideas relate to one another based on a physical space.

A spatial pattern is when writing is organized based on the location of items within an area. The purpose of writing with a spatial pattern is to help create an image of an item that is divided into distinct parts, whether it's a city with different destinations or the atmosphere with different layers of air.

For example, if you were asked to create a document explaining the parts of a computer, you might use a spatial pattern to organize information according to where items are located within the computer. You might have a paragraph about the monitor, a paragraph about the motherboard, a paragraph about the hard drive, and so on. The information about each part of the computer is arranged based on the location of the items within the computer, but the information itself could be about how each part works or what needs to be improved about each part. Focusing each paragraph on one area of the item keeps the writing organized and clear.

Chronological Pattern

When my husband asks me, 'How was your day?,' I almost always start with the first thing that happened in the morning and then proceed to explain every major event that occurred up to the point when he asked. My chronological recall of events is a natural pattern because we, as humans, are so obsessed with time.

The chronological pattern provides information based on the time it occurred. Each paragraph of the document will present information based on a specific time period - either past, present or future, first, next, finally, or before, during, and after.

Let's say that you are asked to create a document showing the past changes and new ideas for a popular toy. A chronological pattern would allow you to explain what the toy looked like when it was first created, what it currently looks like, and what suggestions you would have to improve the toy in the future.

Order of Importance Pattern

When you have a long list of things to do and a small amount of time in which to get them done, what do you do first? Most likely, you choose whatever activity seems the most important. The other stuff can wait if necessary, but the most important thing must be accomplished.

Often in the business world, our writing will consist of addressing issues that arise within the company. Using the order of importance pattern allows us to prioritize different issues that need to be addressed and clearly show which ones take precedence. Order of importance is organizing paragraphs so that the most pressing concern is addressed first. Order of importance is used to highlight the need to deal with certain issues before others.

A company preparing for a big presentation might need to send out a memo to its employees letting them know what needs to be done to make the presentation a success. The memo would probably be organized by explaining the biggest assignment that needs to be completed first, and less pressing assignments next, and so on. This organizational structure would help employees know the most pressing needs for completing the presentation, so the employees can organize their own work around what they need to do to complete the most important assignment.

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