Organizing the material in technical writing

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Illustration from the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, publisher “Nauka” Moscow, USSR, 1979

Engineers need training on organizing the material in technical writing. In teaching engineering students how to write a technical report, one of the first things I talk about is how to how to pull together the material and choose the appropriate approach for the report.

Just about everyone thinks in terms of a chronological narrative, but is that always the best way? In fact, there are a lot of other ways to do it, and one of them – or a combination of them – might be better. Whether you’re trying to make it easier for your reader to follow your reasoning or you’re trying to clarify your own thoughts, how you organize them can make a big difference.

Here’s what I tell my students about the various methods for organizing the material in technical writing.

Chronological

The chronological method works well for material that can be laid out as a sequence of steps in the order in which they occurred or in which they’re supposed to occur. This is best for simple situations in which time order is important; any description of “how we did it” or “how you should do it” fits this category. Examples include experimental procedures, driving directions, and recipes.

Semi-chronological

Many situations aren’t quite that simple. When time sequence matters but isn’t the only important factor, a semi-chronological approach may be preferable. That is, you use an overall structure based on something other than time and then within that structure use a chronological narrative. For example, you might have several independent areas of research that form the basis for your experimental work. So you organize your literature review by topic, but within each topic you provide a chronology of research and findings. Or a history could be organized by country or region, with events within that location ordered chronologically. This type of narrative can be much easier for the reader to follow than a single timeline that jumps from one unrelated topic to another.

Geographical or spatial

In some cases location is more significant than time. If you’re evaluating structures after an earthquake, their distance from the epicenter determines the kind of shaking they’ve undergone. If you are investigating the cause of cracking in a concrete slab, the location is related to the day and time when the concrete was placed; exposure to wind, sun, and temperature changes; and other conditions that may have contributed to the cracking. And of course the length and orientation of the cracks is an important clue as to the cause. If you decide to use a geographical organization, you need to include a site plan or other drawing that helps to orient the reader. You can use it to map the cracks and indicate where you took which samples.

Functional

The functional organization relates to how something works. In this method you describe each component in terms of how it relates to the functioning of the whole. It works well for describing processes or manufacturing equipment. A diagram would be helpful both as a guide to you and as an aid to the reader.

White Rabbit, dressed as herald, blowing trumpet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland original vintage engraving. Illustration by Morphart Creation.

Order of importance

You may want to start with the most important topic and then discuss the remaining ones in the order of declining importance. This is a common approach for news items – the less important ones are easily dropped if there isn’t enough room – but also works well for findings, conclusions, and recommendations.

General to particular

In this case you start with the general principle and then discuss the specific case.

Particular to general

You can also take the opposite approach, beginning with particular observations and then inducing a general principle from them. This is how the scientific method works, so it should be evident in discussions of experimental results or field observations.

Simple to complex

You may want to start with a simple or familiar example and then elaborate on it. This technique is commonly used in teaching to build on what the student already knows. You may find it helpful if your reader needs to have a more sophisticated understanding of your topic to be able to grasp what you’ve done.

Elimination of possible solutions

If you are evaluating several options and there is one that is clearly the best in all respects, you can order them from the least to the most satisfactory and show in turn why each one except the last should be eliminated. This method, of course leads the reader to the one possible right choice.

Pro and con

Normally life isn’t that simple. Every option is better in some respects but worse in others. A decision may involve tradeoffs among speed and accuracy, cost and quality, complexity and reliability, versatility and ease of use. Also, technology and relative prices are always changing; what was the best decision six months ago may not be the best today or next year. In such cases a discussion of pros and cons allows for a more nuanced evaluation of the factors involved.

Drink me. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Illustration from John Tenniel.

Cause and effect

Sometimes the relationship between cause and effect is of paramount importance. This would be the case when presenting a proposed solution to a problem or when determining how to repair a damaged structure – if you don’t know the cause(s), how can you be sure the solution is appropriate?

Psychological

All of the previous methods of organization are logical. Although it may seem strange for an engineer to suggest something that isn’t at all logical, the psychological approach can be very effective: start with the findings, and then provide the factual basis for them. In a sense, you’re delivering the punchline first. This approach is commonly used in business – the busy executive wants to know the results; other people can figure out the details of how to make it work. I’ve also used this in reports for attorneys, as they want to know how best to build their case.

The next time you’re writing a report, consider whether a chronological narrative is the best way to organize it. Even if you include exactly the same information, the way you order it will emphasize some things and obscure others. In technical writing, the ability to see patterns or connections among data can make all the difference between finding a solution and just scratching your head.

We write a lot of EPDs and reports. Email Rachel Detwiler to learn more.