Sometimes organizing documents is easy. Sometimes it seems to take forever and a jackhammer! Ironically, I found this article difficult to organize. So many factors go into creating a coherent, useful document that it turned into a many-headed hydra very quickly. For example: what kind of document? Who is the audience? Does the type of document have a traditional format? So many questions. So hard to keep track of answers!
Try these steps to more easily create an organizational format for your documents.
Answer these Questions Before Organizing your Document
Before you can really think about organization, you need to know why and what you will be writing. These questions will help.
- What kind of document? A white paper needs a different organizational structure than a user guide.
- Who is the audience? Some projects have different audiences. You may need to break up your document for different people. Can content be re-used in both situations?
- What writing tools do you use? If content can be re-used, are you writing in a tool that makes it easy to repurpose, or will you have to use the cut and paste features of MS Word?
- How long can this document be? These days, if you are creating printed documentation, you may be limited in space due to cost constraints.
Make a Rough List
Now, keeping the answers to the above in mind, make a rough list of everything you need to cover. Don’t worry about what order it goes in, or the details. In other words, don’t worry about organizing the document. Just get the basic ideas down.
Organize your Topic List
Now you make decisions for your audience. Is the information best presented as a series of procedures or as a reference tome where they can look up the nitty-gritty details of a feature when they need it? All of the questions in the first section go into making these decisions. And each document type has traditional standards. I can’t go into full depth on these here – try looking into a tech writing class at your local community college or university if you are truly stymied.
Write and Ship
Now you get to the fun part! Write your document and present it to your customer. If you have a good handle on your audience, what they need to know, and how they go about trying to find it, the organization should be quite obvious. If not, return to the questions and dig deeper.
Once your organization is complete, the actual writing becomes relatively easy. You know what you need to cover, and how. It becomes a matter of getting the info from your SME and putting it into the document. Note that new information may change your underlying structure. Don’t etch it in stone. These days, even after the document is “finished” and delivered it may still need to be changed!