Learning and development Planning Writing tips

Structure: key for DIY projects, key for good writing

A stack of drawers of different shapes, sizes, and designs.

Think of something you’ve made — a cake, a chest of drawers, or a deck perhaps. What made it good or bad? The icing or paint may have made a difference, but for something to work it needs to have good structure. A cake with a sunken middle is hardly likely to be a huge success. A drawer that’s too big or the wrong shape won’t slide well. A deck with poor foundations might fall over or shake when someone walks across it.

Structure is just as important in writing. You’ll have read documents that have felt repetitive, all over the place, or back to front — problems that are tell-tale signs of bad structure. In contrast, a document with good structure is easy to follow, logical, and compelling.

Writing things as they come to mind is like tackling the steps in your DIY project in whatever order you fancy, like doing step 5 before step 1. You won’t get good structure, and might confuse yourself in the process.

Creating good structure can be surprisingly difficult though. You could use a table of contents to create structure. In this case — structuring your writing — a table of contents is a list of the topics you’re going to cover, in the order that you’ll be covering them.

Group similar things together

You need to be clear about why you’re writing. If you don’t know why, you can’t create good structure. Think about what your reader needs to know, and jot down a few key points on what you want to say. Don’t worry about crafting stunning sentences or the order of information for now.

Now group the points that are related.

Group similar items together in your table of contents (3 minutes)

Create balance

If some groups are much bigger than others, can you group things differently? Or remove information from bigger groups? Could you add information to the smaller ones?

Create balance in your table of contents (2 minutes)

Organise information by importance

Now that you’ve grouped your information, think about what readers would want to know first. Think about what matters to them, not what you’re itching to tell them. If what you want to tell them isn’t important to them, they’ll lose interest and stop reading.

Organise your table of contents in order of importance (2 minutes)

Keep refining that table of contents

Grouping similar things, creating balance, and organising information by importance are the first few steps to structuring a document that works. Learn the next steps to create a well-structured document — the writing equivalent of a successful DIY project.

Check the complexity of your table of contents (3 minutes)

Use headings to create structure (4 minutes)

Combine different types of headings (2 minutes)

Learn more about structure

Watch a video on Element 3 of clear writing: Structure (2 minutes)

Read more about structure in Structure matters: Reports need good ‘bones’

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