How do you organize your thoughts when you write? The method you use can affect more than just your readability score on ProWritingAid. Depending on what you’re writing, badly arranging ideas can impact your credibility too.
How you arrange your ideas is every bit as important—if not more so—than the ideas themselves. You can have perfectly wonderful information, but unless you know how to present it, then you have little chance of getting noticed or of what you’ve written making a difference.
We all want what we write to impact our audience, get our point across, and motivate readers to take action, consider a new idea, or perhaps even try piecing ideas together. But how do you determine what arrangement works best for your piece?
Ultimately, that’s for you to decide as the writer and master of your written universe. However, there are a few tips that I’ve found to be most helpful when advising a client or writing my own pieces.
Tip #1: Use the inverted pyramid where it makes sense.
Journalism majors and content marketers will recognize this one right off the bat, but what does that mean for the rest of us? It means you put your most important information first. This makes sense for most of the writing you will have to do in your life because it is now the standard practice for most internet writing. And, let’s face it, almost everyone is on the internet at least once daily, if not constantly.
This means that even if you don’t know what an inverted pyramid is, you’ve probably been reading it. So has everyone else which makes it the perfect structure to use for written material outside of the internet too.
I find the inverted pyramid style works best when you are writing pure fact-based pieces or long manuals. Informational literature, like a news article, an employee handbook, or a working manual, benefits from having all the important information right up front. If you bury important information in these pieces, then you are wasting everyone’s time.
An employee handbook is supposed to set the basic expectation for every employee who comes to work for your business. But how can you expect employees to read otherwise dry material? Arrange the information differently!
Put the most important information in each section right at the beginning. What is the one takeaway you want everyone to absorb from that section? Put it at the top and make everything else fit underneath it.
Yes, there has to be some legal language in there. Make it easier for your average employee to swallow by at least arranging the information in a way that makes sense and fits your organization. You can’t expect a mostly blue-collar or trades-based organization to present a handbook that reads like a law textbook and find it works for its employees.
It won’t. You’re setting them up for failure from the off and that is no way to run a Navy, as my dad would have said.
Where the inverted pyramid doesn’t work,
When doesn’t it make sense? Well, it makes little sense if you’re a fiction writer, poetry writer, or speech writer. All of those forms rely on rhetorical structures to build suspense, intrigue the audience, and draw them further into the story. Some creative non-fiction works this way too, such as memoirs, biographies, and, yes, longer blog posts.
Tip# 2: ALWAYS use logic to arrange the information.
There is a logical flow to everything you write, or should be. The main idea of your piece should have supporting ideas which naturally flow together and don’t jump around. You are making a point and having a good logical flow will convince your reader your point has merit.
This is not easy. Take it from someone who knows a thing or two about writing.
Mostly, writing is about sequential logic or asking what comes next. This may differ from writer to writer and depends on the actual point being made. You wouldn’t, for instance, go off on a tangent and argue about the appalling state of workers’ rights in the Industrial Revolution when you are using the Industrial Revolution as a supporting piece to defend the need to change the modern workplace to fit the new condition.
If, however, your point was on how workers have been victimized in workplaces, then an argument about workers’ rights in the Industrial Revolution would be very useful and informative.
Logic isn’t a popular subject—if it’s even taught anymore. Logic requires examining your assumptions and, sometimes, changing them. This isn’t easy to do. We hold some of our assumptions too dearly than we ought.
Yet, most of the wisdom regarding “mindset” involves logic at a very basic level.
We talk about overcoming fear, and what happens when you break down your fears? The ultimate question you ask yourself has to be “is this true?” This forces you to face reality—even if the fear turns out to be true.
Well, you have to do the same thing when you’re writing too. Some of your supporting arguments may not benefit you. Just as some of your paragraphs may need to be cut to make your piece more concise.
Tip# 3: Present the good before the bad.
This is an old, old PR trick, but it works for a reason. You always want positive to trump negative. Now, you may think that you should reverse the order here. Put the bad first and the good second.
Now, where would this be a bad idea? Well, think about it from a reader’s standpoint. Where would you least like to have all the bad stuff first?
What if you’re starting a new job, you have all this new information to process, and every single section starts with “don’t do this” or “this behavior will result in termination.” It doesn’t exactly start anything off on the right foot, does it?
It makes you think that you can’t do anything. So, when giving instructions, tell your reader what they can do. Then start in on the things they shouldn’t do. Same thing in any work manuals you may have. Always give the ideal first—the best possible outcome. Then give what happens if there’s a failure somewhere.
Psychologically, it puts your reader in a better mindset. Just as if you’re giving feedback—start with what is going right and built up their confidence. Then, lay out how they can improve.
Where would this be a bad idea? News items, critical information that has to be acted upon immediately, customer complaints, etc. If there’s a natural disaster, a nasty accident, or a terrorist attack, your reader needs to know that upfront. Can you imagine if the news about the 9/11 attacks was given last? Yeah, not a good picture.
Tip# 4: Group like pieces of information with like concepts.
One of the best ways to help your reader with this is by considering how to categorize and group your information together. There’s a logic component here too. If you’re writing a handbook or a manual, for instance, you want to group information so that like is with like.
For instance, company policies can be grouped by when they will affect the employee. I did this recently for a client. I grouped policies about workplace accommodations and hiring practices together at the front of the manual and then grouped things like the drug and alcohol policy with the code of conduct and workplace harassment policy. Why? Because I was making a distinction between getting hired and the process of working for the company.
Why? Well, if you’re in being hired, you’ll want to know the policies that the company has regarding hiring and providing work accommodations for different conditions. If you’re disabled, for instance, a new mother, or have strict religious mandates to observe, you need to know that information upfront.
If, however, you currently work for the company, and you want to know their dress code policy, you’re going to look for it where all the rest of the information about your everyday work conditions are.
Tip# 5: Arrange your ideas according to how you want your audience to react.
Ok, so this one sounds slightly sleazy, I know. Let me explain how this one works.
Everyone has their own basic assumptions about the world, the universe, and other people. This means that most people are going to associate words and ideas slightly differently from one another.
Well, if you know how a particular segment of your audience is going to react to the information presented in a way that plays upon those associations, you can present the information in a way that ensures most of them will leap to conclusions. Biased news writers use this fairly frequently as do provocateurs and disseminators of misinformation.
For instance, if you talk about obedience in association with a patriarchal structure, i.e. the male component has the last word on every subject in a relationship, what are the reactions going to be? Not positive, that’s for certain. But, if you talk about obedience in association with a partnership being functional, such as honoring boundaries, then you’ll get a very different reaction.
A lot of romance novels play upon the two different ways of presenting obedience and almost all of them use it to either make the strong-willed female see her partner’s point, or they’ll use it to soften up the alpha male in the story. Suddenly, when the gruff hero demands the heroine do something when there’s danger around, obedience sounds like a fantastically romantic thing.
Did you see the association? When obedience is associated with “safety,” then it becomes palatable. When it’s associated with dominance or submission, it’s not. This is an effective means of invoking emotional responses in your audience. For good and for ill. So use with caution!
Even if you don’t use this method of arranging your ideas, it’s a good idea to be aware of it anyway, so you can avoid any potential pitfalls. Or Twitter mobs.
Which tips are right for you?
That is something only you can decide because it depends on your subject, your audience, and your goal for your project.
Are you going to use any of these in your next project? Let me know in the comments section below!
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