By Craig Baehr | STC Associate Fellow
The organizational design competency focuses on guidelines and techniques for organizing and drafting technical documents. Specifically, it covers organizational patterns and rhetorical moves for introductions and conclusions to technical reports, as well as content organizational strategies for specific technical genres including memos, technical descriptions and specifications, instructional content, proposals, activity or status reports, and analytical reports.
Mastery at the Foundation Level
At the CPTC Foundation level, you should be able to demonstrate basic knowledge and understanding of organizational patterns used in developing a wide range of technical document genres. This includes the ability to recall key terms and facts about the organization and drafting of technical documents. The two learning objectives that support this competency include demonstrating the ability to do the following:
- Discuss how patterns of arrangement can help you organize information logically.
- Explain how to use genres to outline and organize technical documents.
Additionally, candidates should be able to identify the major patterns of arrangement for major content sections and rhetorical moves within technical documents, including the introduction, body, and conclusion sections.
Richard Johnson-Sheehan (2015) identifies six opening moves which are commonly used to develop the content for introductions. These include discussing and scoping the subject, purpose, main point, importance, background information, and forecasting. For clarity, introductions should focus on these six moves only, and avoid extraneous information. While these moves can be organized in any order, typically they might be arranged based on any number of reasons, such as user needs, genre conventions, organizational guidelines, or simply for narrative clarity.
- Subject (defining or describing the topic of the document)
- Purpose (the primary purpose or goal of the document)
- Main Point (the main point or major claim the document is trying to make)
- Importance (why the document is important or significant to its users or readers)
- Background Information (important supplemental information users or readers will need to understand or use the document)
- Forecasting (content and/or organizational patterns featured in the document)
Organizational Patterns for Genres
Organizational patterns for the body of a document may depend on the document genre and its content. When organizing these sections, it’s also important to consider any organizational conventions or other constraints that may be unique to the document’s subject or purpose. Johnson-Sheehan identifies six categories of document genres which are commonly used in technical communication, although they are not inclusive of every document type you may encounter. These six typical genres include:
- Letters, Memos, and Email
- Technical Descriptions and Specifications
- Instructions and Documentation
- Activity Reports
- Analytical Reports
Each document genre includes its own unique content sections. For example, letters, memos, and email might typically include a brief introduction, several narrative paragraphs, and a brief closing. Technical descriptions might include definitions, examples, lists of regulations, safety warnings, and information graphics that illustrate specific characteristics. Instructional documents might include an overview, list of materials, procedure, warnings, and possible uses. Proposals can include an introduction, followed by a discussion of the problem, plan, qualifications, costs, and benefits. Activity reports typically include summaries, results, future activities, and expenses. And activity reports typically follow the MRAD (methods, results, analysis, discussion) pattern of organization.
Additionally, individual sections or paragraphs typically incorporate common patterns of arrangement to organize main points or ideas. Johnson-Sheehan identifies nine typical patterns that can be used to develop individual content sections or paragraphs, which include the following:
- Cause and effect
- Comparison and contrast
- Better and worse
- Costs and benefits
- If … then
- Either … or
- Chronological order
Many, if not all of these, should be familiar to you from your experiences in basic writing course you took in high school or college and are covered widely. It’s important to consider which patterns to use and how to organize them, based on appropriateness for the topic, user, constraints, and conventions for the type of technical document you are writing.
When writing conclusions, it is important to address five specific closing moves, however briefly, to reiterate key points, calls for action, and to provide closure and contact information. Like with writing introductions, the order in which you make these moves might vary depending on various constraints. Johnson-Sheehan identifies the five concluding moves as follows:
- Make an obvious transition (indicate the document is concluding)
- Restate the main point (remind readers of the primary goal or point the document is making)
- Re-emphasize the importance of the document (remind readers why the document is important)
- Look to the future (suggest next steps or actions)
- Thank readers and/or offer contact information (provide succinct thanks and / or point of contact)
In addition to the primary text for the CPTC Foundation certification, Technical Communication Today, you might visit the STC Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (http://www.tcbok.org) and search for keywords used in this article. Additionally, you might find reading books or articles on specific document genres helpful, too, such as a book on writing proposals, instructional documents, and other technical reports. And finally, if you work for an organization with a handbook or guide to writing specific document genres, that might help you understand strategies of how patterns may differ in the organizational development of various technical documents.
Johnson-Sheehan, R. 2015. Technical Communication Today, 5th ed. Boston: Pearson.
STC Technical Communication Body of Knowledge, www.tcbok.org.
CRAIG BAEHR, PhD, is an STC Associate Fellow and professor of Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University, with 25 years of technical communication experience. He serves as the Chief Examiner for the Certified Professional Technical Program (CPTC) and as Director-at-Large on the STC Board of Director. He chairs the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) project and is Faculty Sponsor for the STC Texas Tech University Student Chapter. He is author of Web Development: A Visual-Spatial Approach, Writing for the Internet: A Guide to Real Communication in Virtual Space, and The Agile Communicator: Principles and Practices in Technical Communication. He has published material on a wide range of topics, including instructional design, content strategy, hypertext theory, online publishing, and visual communication. Previously, he worked in industry as a technical writer, editor, Web developer, and program director for ten years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He has been a member of STC since 2000.