The Importance of Structure
Before you start to write any document, it is helpful to have a broad plan in mind setting out what information you intend to include, and in what order. This is known as the structure of your document or text.
Developing this structure or framework will save you time as you write. It will ensure that you include all the necessary information, without any unnecessary detail. It will also help to improve the flow of the writing.
This page describes the process of developing a suitable structure for any document. It also provides some examples, although many more exist online and in study guides.
Why Use a Structure?
Developing a structure or framework for your writing will ensure that the most important points are covered at the appropriate point in the writing.
A framework or structure will also allow you to break down the daunting task of writing a longer document into more manageable sections.
For example, being asked to write a 10,000-word report is an intimidating prospect. However, you can use a framework to decide that you will need 500 words in an introduction, 2,000 to explain the methods you used, 2,500 to set out your results, and so on. Writing a 500-word introduction is a much less daunting task than writing a 10,000-word report.
Adhering to your framework will also prevent you from writing too many words for one section and then having to delete these to make enough room for another section.
Developing a Structure
There is no one set structure or framework that covers all possible forms of written communication.
Check Before You Begin!
Your first step in developing a structure is to check whether one already exists.
For example, if you are writing a business document, or something at work, your employer may already have a template for that document. If you are a student, there may be a required structure for each kind of written assignment.
Checking first will save you considerable time developing your own structure, or putting your document into the correct structure later.
If there is no outline structure provided, you will need to develop one.
However, don’t panic, because there are many examples of structures for different forms of writing available on the web and within study guides. You really do not need to reinvent the wheel.
Start by searching for a suitable example using your keywords (for example, ‘factual news article’, or ‘business report’). You can then compare outline structures, and decide which one you think will work.
If you really cannot find a suitable outline, then you will have to develop one.
A Process for Structure Development
There are broadly two options for structuring documents.
‘Chronological’, or the order in which you have developed your thinking.
Academic writing generally takes this form. You start with background and previous research, then describe your methods, results, and conclusions, setting this into the context of previous research. Finally, you put forward proposals for future research.
Non-chronological, which follows the order in which the reader needs the information.
Business writing often takes this form, because executives tend to want to read the conclusions or recommendations first. If they don’t understand or support these, then they want more information about how the ideas were developed. They usually know the background, so that is often included in an appendix, rather than the main text.
Some Tips for Deciding Your Structure:
It is a good idea to start by thinking about your conclusion or recommendations, and decide whether you want those upfront, or at the end. This depends chiefly on your readers’ need.
Consider whether you need to include any background, and if so, how much. To decide this, again consider your reader. You can then decide if you want to include the background early on (because your audience needs this information), or if it can be included as an appendix for anyone who wants to read it later.
Decide when and where to include the arguments supporting your conclusion or recommendations.
This will probably give you enough clues to decide on a chronological or non-chronological structures. Beyond that, you will need to be flexible to decide what is most appropriate for your purposes.
It’s not set in stone!
When you are developing a suitable structure, remember that it is not set in stone. You do not have to use it rigidly. Even within an organisational outline, there will be some flexibility.
The structure is designed to help you and your reader, not to constrain you and make your life difficult.
You will probably have realised by now that perhaps the most important consideration is your audience. There is more about this process of understanding your readers’ needs in our page on Know Your Audience.
Once you have decided whether you are using a chronological or non-chronological structure, set out some possible headings and sub-headings for your document. These should allow you to set out all the necessary information, in a logical order.
Using Your Structure
The next step is to start to populate the structure with notes about what content to include.
Under each heading in the structure, make a note of the required information. You can then start to fill in the sections in more detail.
You will often be able to use the titles of the main sections in your structure as headings and subheadings within the text. These help the reader to navigate through the piece.
However, even if you are not expected to use the section titles in the finished document, they will still help you to structure your writing into the desired framework.
You don’t need to write in the final order
One of the most useful aspects of a structure is that you do not need to write your document in the final order. Instead, you can move about the document, writing different sections to follow your train of thought.
For example, some people find that it is helpful to start with their conclusion or recommendation. This means it is clear in their mind as they write their supporting arguments.
In academic writing, it is common to start with the methods, because this is often the easiest section. The introduction or background may be written early, but will often need much more work once you have developed your conclusions.
Whatever structure you choose to use, you should constantly check that you are adhering to it. If you find that your structure does not work, then revisit it to see whether another structure might be more appropriate.
You should also check the flow of your text as you write. Paragraphs and sections should flow logically from one to the next. Conclude one subject area before introducing another. Hopping from one topic to another with no clear structure confuses the reader and demonstrates a lack of clarity.
Examples of Structures for Written Work
Two examples of common structures for writing different types of communication are provided below. Remember that these are simply examples, and many variations on these frameworks exist.
A Written Report
See also: How to Write a Report
Reports are always presented in sections and subsections, because they contain a lot of information. This needs to be organised in a way that makes sense to the reader.
Sections are often numbered, and long reports generally include a title page and a table of contents.
- Title Page
- Contents Page (with headings, subheadings and page numbers)
- List of Illustrations (optional)
- Acknowledgements (optional)
- Abstract/Summary/Executive Summary
- Introduction which may be combined with the next section.
- Background/Literature Review
- Research Methods/Methodology
- Recommendations (optional; in some business situations, this section may be included at the beginning of the report)
- Further research
A Press Release
See also: How to Write a Press Release
A press release is a written statement to the media. They are used by organisations to try to generate a news story.
Journalists receive numerous press releases every day. The key aim is therefore to capture their interest quickly and show them that you have a good story for them, which will repay their attention.
In this example, the headings and subheadings provided below should not be included within the press release. They are only to help you structure the text.
- Statement “For immediate release” or “Embargoed until (date and time)” as appropriate
- Headline (a short, attention- grabbing summary of the story)
- Photo opportunity (optional)
Paragraph 1 Lead Sentence: Summarise the story - who, what, where, when and why. All key information needs to be in this paragraph. It needs to keep the reader’s interest and follow on from the headline.
Paragraph 2: Include more details to flesh out the story that you outlined in the first paragraph
Paragraph 3: Quotes from someone relevant to the story. Each quote should make one point. If you wish to include more than one point here, use quotes from different people.
Paragraph 4: Any additional relevant information
Note for Editors (background information; whether you can offer interviews or additional pictures; any additional relevant information)
A final thought
A structure is chiefly useful in ordering your thoughts, and helping your reader to navigate your document.
As you develop your structure, and then use it to write your document, you therefore need to keep these aspects in mind.