Professional and Technical Writing/Design/Document Organization/Organizational Patterns

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Organizational Patterns[edit]

There are seven different patterns that are commonly used to organize documents: Formal classification, informal classification, comparison, partitioning, segmenting, cause/effect, and problem/solution. Which organizational pattern is used will depend on the type of document that is being composed; however, the goal of effective organizing is to make the document easier to use, and several organizational patterns are often used in a single document.

Formal Classification[edit]

Formal classification is simply grouping facts together based on their common attributes. Each group is often divided into subgroups enabling the facts to be precisely classified. Formal classification requires that each fact can only be present in one grouping, and each grouping must follow the same principle. For example, to classify three animals, each animal should only fit into one group. A tiger, wolf, and zebra could be grouped into categories such as feline, canine, and equine. Each grouping follows the same principle of grouping the animals according to their biological family. A faulty classification would be feline, canine, and mammal because feline and canine are biological families and mammal refers to a biological class. Still further, each species can be broken up into subgroups and divisions like in cattle, Herefords and Jerseys are both cattle, but one is a beef animal and the other is a dairy animal.

Informal Classification[edit]

Informal classification can help you create a reader-centered communication when you need to organize information about a large number of items but find it impossible or undesirable to classify them according to the kind of objective characteristic that is necessary for formal classification.

Informal classification differs from formal classification because the groupings need not follow a consistent principle of classification; however, like formal classification, each fact should still only fit into one grouping. For example, a tiger, wolf, and zebra could be classified into canines and African mammals. The groupings do not follow a consistent principle, but each animal can only be grouped into one category. Informal classification is a valid organizational pattern and can be very useful to readers when properly used.

Comparison[edit]

Comparisons are used in business documents to help readers make a decision and to help readers understand research findings. Two alternatives are compared to each other based on the same criteria. For example, two building sites may be compared to decide which site to build a warehouse. Site A and Site B could both be compared based on development cost, road access, property taxes, distance to customers, and so on. Comparisons are useful when readers must evaluate several options.

In some ways, comparison is like classification. You begin with a large set of facts about the things you are comparing, and you group the facts around points of comparison that enable your readers to see how the things are like and unlike one another. In comparisons written to support decision-making, points of comparison are called criteria. When writing a comparison, you can choose either of two organizational patterns. Both include the same contents but arrange the contents differently.

Consider, for example, Tiffany's situation. Tiffany's employer has decided to replace the aging machines it uses to stamp out metal parts for the bodies of large trucks. Tiffany has been assigned to investigate the two machines the company is considering. Having amassed hundreds of pages of information, she must now decide how to organize her report to the company's executives. For organizing her comparison, Tiffany can choose to use the divided pattern or the alternating pattern.

Divided Pattern
Machine A
Cost
Efficiency
Construction Time
Air Pollution
Et cetera
Machine B
Cost
Efficiency
Construction Time
Air Pollution
Et cetera
Alternating Pattern
Cost
Machine A
Machine B
Efficiency
Machine A
Machine B
Construction Time
Machine A
Machine B
Air Pollution
Machine A
Machine B
Et Cetera
Machine A
Machine B

Partitioning[edit]

Partitioning refers to describing an object. If a document must be written about a bicycle, a writer may divide the description into the smaller parts of the bicycle. A writer may first describe the braking system, then the gear system, then the frame, seat, and tires. By dividing the document into smaller parts, information becomes easier to locate and the document becomes more useful to the reader.

Guidelines for Describing an Object[edit]

  1. Choose a principle of classification suited to your readers and purpose.
  2. Use only one basis for partitioning at a time.
  3. Arrange the parts of your description in a way your readers will find useful.
  4. When describing each part, provide details that your readers will find useful.
  5. Include graphics if they will help your readers understand and use your information about the object.

Segmenting[edit]

Segmenting is similar to partitioning, except segmenting refers to describing a process. Typically, a writer will use segmenting when the goal of the document is for the reader to perform the process. Cookbook recipes are often segmented. When describing how to prepare a cake, the process to make the cake must be described first. Then, the process of making the frosting is described. After this, the recipe might explain how to frost the cake. By segmenting the document, the recipe is broken down into smaller, manageable steps. This makes the process easier to perform for the reader.

A general description of a process explains the relationship of events over time. You may have either of two purposes in describing a process:

  • To enable your readers to perform the process. For example, you may be writing instructions that will enable your readers to analyze the chemicals in a sample of live tissue, make a photovoltaic cell, apply for a loan, or run a computer program.
  • To enable your readers to understand the process, For example, you might want your readers to understand the following:
    • How something is done. For instance, how coal is transformed into synthetic diamonds.
    • How something works. For instance, how the lungs provide oxygen to the bloodstream.
    • How something happened. For instance, how the United States developed the space programs that eventually landed astronauts on the moon.

Principles of Classification for Segmenting[edit]

To determine where to segment the process, you need a principle of classification. Commonly used principles include the time when the steps are performed (first day, second day; spring, summer, fall), the purpose of the steps (to prepare the equipment, to examine the results), and the tools used to perform the steps(for example, table saw, drill press, and so on). Processes can be segmented by a variety of classification principles. Pick the principle that best supports your readers' goals.

Guidelines For Segmenting[edit]

  1. Choose a principle for segmenting suited to your readers and your purpose.
  2. Make your smallest groupings manageable.
  3. Describe clearly the relationships among the steps and groups of steps.
  4. Provide enough detail about each step to meet your readers' needs.
  5. Include graphics if they will help your readers understand and use your information about the process.

Cause and Effect[edit]

Documents organized by cause and effect help readers understand how one event is caused by another. Cause and effect documents often attempt to persuade readers that a cause and effect relationship actually exists. Cause and effect can be difficult to link. Evidence of the relationship must be chosen carefully. If used correctly, a document organized by cause and effect can be very persuasive and useful to a reader.

At work, you are likely to write about cause and effect for one of two distinct purposes.

  • to help your readers understand a cause-and-effect relationship.
  • to persuade your readers that a certain cause-and-effect relationship exists.

The strategies for organizing for these two purposes are somewhat different.

Problem and Solution[edit]

Problems and their solutions will be one of the most frequent topics of your on-the-job writing. The problems you discuss may arise from dissatisfaction with some strategy, product, process, or policy. Alternatively, they may arise from an aspiration to achieve a new goal, such as great efficiency, or take advantage of a new opportunity, such as the potential to do business in another country.

The goal of a document organized by problem and solution is to propose a future action. Like cause and effect documents, problem and solution documents need to be persuasive. The writer must first show that a problem exists, and then show that the proposed solution is the best method to solve the problem. Problem and solution documents are very common in business writing and often take the form of a business proposal.

Guidelines For Persuading Readers To Accept Your Proposed Solution[edit]

  1. Describe the problem in a way that make it seem significant to your readers.
  2. Describe your method.
  3. When describing your method, explain how it will solve the problem. Show them that your method is the best option for them given their circumstances.
  4. Anticipate and respond to objections.
  5. Specify the benefits.
  6. Acknowledge the weaknesses of your solution. Your audience is going to find weaknesses whether you present them or not. Your ideas will look more credible if you acknowledge the weaknesses of your solution, and then show how they can be overcome.
  7. Include graphics if they will help your readers understand and approve your proposed solution.
  8. Avoid sounding confrontational. This will deter your readers. You need them to open to your ideas, not defensive of their ideas.
  9. Keep in mind that you won't be able to persuade all of your readers, all of the time. Sometimes, you have to accept that they acknowledge your suggestions. In time, they might still change their minds.
  10. Get straight to the point. Business people don't want to waste time listening to you beat around the bush; just give them what they need.