main point of document —then background main point of section —then explanation main point of section —then explanation

And here's an explanation of the model:

1. Begin with your main point: whatever you want your reader to do or understand.

2. Organize your content into sections—or blocks—of related information. Those blocks don't have to be single paragraphs—they could be pages long (broken into short paragraphs, of course).

3. Label each of those blocks with a heading. Use subheadings, too, if the blocks are long.

4. Try to start each block by stating its main point. For example, if your heading is a question, begin the block by answering that question.

5. And use details—sometimes in bulleted lists—to support that main point.

Simple, isn't it?

The model in action

Let's apply the model. Here, as an example, is the beginning of a memo:

This memo asks for your authorization to rent three computers for $900 total cost.

We've ordered three personal computers to work on the Laredo project, but the supplier can't get them to us until June 1. Because we must start the project sooner, we need to rent other computers in the meantime. This memo gives you the details.

Why are our new computers late?

The manufacturer had trouble with defective computer chips. As a result.. . . [The memo then continues with more explanation in this paragraph and more sections with headings.]

Notice that:

• The first paragraph is the main point of the document: I want you to pay $900 to rent computers.

• There are headings to label the blocks of information in the body of the document. This example, which shows only the beginning of the memo, has the heading, "Why are our new computers late?"

• The first sentence after the heading is the main point of the section: the manufacturer had trouble with computer chips.

You can see this model can help untangle complex information for the reader—and for the writer. If you aim for this model when you begin writing, starting will be easier, and you'll be more organized.

Does this model seem mechanical? Yes, it is. Too mechanical? I doubt it. The content of business writing can become extraordinarily complex; at the same time, readers are often busy. A mechanical organization is a blessing for a busy reader (for busy writers, too).

Think about yourself around April 15 each year. What kind of organization do you want for the instructions on filling out your income tax forms? If you're like me, you want the organization to be absolutely clear—with no ambiguity whatsoever.

Does the model work all the time?

It works especially well for busy readers who want to get information as quickly as possible and then move on to something else. It works for people who have to read whatever you're writing and want the writing to be as painless as possible.

It doesn't work as well when you need to engage readers creatively and hold their attention with an entertaining style or innovative organization. Frankly, most people enjoy that kind of writing off the job but don't enjoy it on the job. They see the creative part as a waste of time (I don't, but I've found I'm in the minority).

Again, think of yourself as a reader: how much of the writing you read could benefit by following this model?

Does the model work for technical writing?

Yes, the model works especially well for technical, complex writing. In fact, the more complex the writing is, the more important this model is for the reader. But just because the model works for complex writing doesn't mean it isn't suited for simple explanations and recommendations, too. The example in this chapter—about renting a computer— is relatively simple, and the model serves it well.

Do you need to follow all parts of the model?

No, you don't need to follow all parts of the model all the time. For example, sometimes you might want to give the reader a little background before you can make your main point—either for the entire document or part of it.

You must still be careful, though, to keep the background to a minimum before you get to the point. Remember: readers know how to skip ahead.

When I have a lot of background to cover, I try to give the minimum up front, then state the main point, then add background if necessary. But a funny thing happens when I get the main point up front: I find I need much less background than I thought.

So keep the model in mind before and as you write. It's simple and effective.

You've now read about each of the key parts of writing in plain English:

• style: writing the way you talk

• organization: getting to the point

• layout: adding visual impact

The next three sections tell you more about each of those parts.


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