For many of our project tasks at RII, we oftentimes find ourselves organizing and summarizing what can seem like an overwhelming amount of information at first glance. However, experience has taught me that just a few simple steps to these types of tasks turns the seemingly insurmountable into something that is much more manageable and easy to accomplish.
Some organizational writing tasks will easily lend themselves to an obvious form of organizing or the overall structure and discussion areas may be predetermined or required by your customer. However, for those tasks where you are determining the ideal organization based on the information and findings in the material itself, I find the following approach to be helpful:
Know the purpose of the task
Before diving in, be sure to understand the unique purpose and goal of your task. This includes an understanding of the research objective and especially the specific needs of your audience. Does this task require a hypothesis? What are the specific needs of your audience? What type of information are they looking for? What does your reader want to know/learn as a result of reading this information?
Read the information carefully, more than once
Having thoroughly defined the purpose of the task, you are now ready to do a preliminary reading of the material. It may seem obvious, but you’ll want to be sure to keep notes of your findings that are directly related to the purpose of the task. Once you read the material closely a first time, consider at least a second and potentially third or fourth read through as you are defining and determining the organization and key concepts.
Look for similarities, key concepts and unique findings
During the reading of the material, consider highlighting or noting important and similar or recurring concepts, ideas, themes, issues and concerns. In addition, consider noting differences and unique information that will be of interest to your audience. During this process, be sure to constantly remind yourself of the needs of the reader. As a result of this process, you should be able to draw from the noted similarities, differences and key concepts to determine those that you think your reader will be most interested in and this process will allow for relatively easy organization of information into these areas.
Determine the best approach to organizing the information
Based on your findings from the previous step, you are ready to determine the best manner in which to organize your information. Here, look across your notes and decide what areas you think should be included in order meet the needs of the audience and the purpose of the task.
Gather information, summarize and refine the organization
After an initial determination of the organization of your material, you are ready to gather the related information, summarize and draw conclusions, as appropriate. This process will allow for further refining of the organization. Be prepared to consider making changes to the organization and be sure to allow the topic areas to evolve. It is better to make changes than to try to force information to fit into categories that in the end are not helpful to your audience.
Consider also the order that you provide your topic areas. The information can be organized hierarchically such as by level of importance to the reader or those that are most focused on the task objectives and requirements of the audience. You could also consider organizing by those topic areas that are ‘meatiest’, containing the most information, or you could chose to highlight those areas that will likely present unique or surprising information to the reader. Depending on the information, it may be appropriate to organize the information sequentially (i.e. timeline or steps), by location (i.e. user/maintenance manuals), or even alphabetically. As long as you continue to let the needs of the audience guide your processes, the organizational outcome will meet their needs.
Consider the specific needs of the audience, again
While we have been considering the needs of the audience throughout this entire process, I think it is important when nearing the completion of this task to take some additional time to consider and ensure that you have addressed any questions that may arise given organization of the information. Will your audience have questions based on how you’ve organized the information? Do you need to further refine the organization, provide an alternate organization or provide additional written material to clarify these questions? Are there any gaps or missing areas in the organization that you have provided? Are you missing any information that your audience would be expecting? Will this require additional research or should it be noted in your document in some other manner?
In closing, by considering the needs of your audience continually throughout the organizational writing process, you will provide a document that will allow the reader to easily synthesis the material, see the relationships between the information, and understand the findings that have been drawn as a result.
Now that I’ve shared my approach for tackling organizing information, I invite you to share your tactics with me.