Part1: Six Basic Steps

Organize Top-Down

Organize Top-Down
Verify and Revise



Although some writers write first and organize later, it's a lot more efficient to think through the structure of your document before you start writing. That way, you don't spend time on a lot of loose paragraphs and sentences that you later throw away.

While documents can be organized in several different ways, one especially effective form is a hierarchical structure. Research has shown that hierarchically structured documents are easier to read and easier to comprehend than non-hierarchical ones. Consequently, the goal for this step is to organize your content and ideas into a hierarchical structure.

You can build a hierarchical structure in several ways. You started this process in the Explore step when you put ideas into clusters, then combined clusters to form more general points. You weren't encouraged to continue that "bottom-up" strategy because at that point you had not firmed up your intentions for the overall purpose and direction of your document. Having done that in the Focus step, you're now ready to structure your ideas and your document.

We recommend a "top-down" strategy to do this. It moves from general to specific, from your most general point to the individual ideas that will be expressed in a paragraph or two, each. The major advantage of a top-down strategy is that it insures that all the parts of your document support your largest intentions. It's made practical by the bottom-up thinking you did during Explore that gave you a comprehensive view of the material you have to work with.

To help you manage your thinking during this step, we suggest using a Tree diagram that looks like a family tree or an organization chart. This kind of Tree differs from its real world counterparts since it's drawn upside down, with its "root" at the top and its "leaves" at the bottom.




This procedure has several advantages over more traditional outlining. First, because structure is represented visually, you see relations directly. You can see where a point fits in, see corresponding points on the same level, and see what points are logically above or below one another. You can also step back and see the document as a whole, your eye noting directly proportion and balance among its various parts..

With the outline, structure is invisible and has to be imagined. Relations are represented indirectly, in codes such as I.C.2.b or; consequently, you have to infer structure by interpreting the codes.

Second, the outline form encourages you to go to the deepest level of detail almost immediately: e.g., I.A.1.a. It's easy to get lost, to forget what larger point you are trying to make. By contrast, the top-down approach in which you fill out the Tree a level at a time helps you keep your sense of context and direction.

Third, the Tree helps you manage your thinking. Constructing a large, coherent conceptual structure is not a natural mental act. You can't hold all the details and relations in memory. You need to get them out in front of you so you can see them and work with them. This takes effort and the right tools. The Tree, particularly when done with post-its, provides a flexible, efficient medium in which to think and in which to organize your ideas.

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