Make It Coherent

How do you navigate a minefield? Carefully, and with the help of an accurate map. You, Mr. or Ms. Infowriter, are a mapmaker for your readers. If your document wanders all over the place, your readers will get lost. And there may be more than a little potentially explosive material lurking below the surface of any business or technical document.

Read your document for coherence; don’t let it wander. It must be coherent or logically interconnected. Riordan and Pauley describe two organizational principles essential to a logically interconnected and understandable document:

  • Putting first things first
  • Moving in a consistent direction


Put First Things First

The important stuff always goes at the top. Your document is neither novel nor short story, so the element of surprise is toxic. Keep the reader informed.

Start with a context-setting paragraph or section, in which you prepare the reader for what’s to come. Tell her:

  • What the document is for. Why should she read it? (Some experts advise telling the reader why you’re writing, but most readers don’t care why you spent your time writing. They want to know why they should invest any of theirs reading.)
  • If and how you will use any words that are unusual or unfamiliar. Spell everything out; define your terms. Warn readers of jargon-strewn terrain ahead and guide them through it.


Move in a consistent direction

After you orient the reader by describing the document’s context, map out the route you’ll be taking.

  • Select an organizational principle, based on the type of information being conveyed. When describing an item, for example, start at the physical top and work your way to the bottom. Or in outlining a process, start with the prelkiminary (prework) steps, proceed to the main steps, and finish with the follow-up items
  • Use preview lists. In other words, tell them what you’re going to tell them (as I did in the bullet list near the top of this post).
  • Restate key words from the preview list (especially in sub-headings).
  • Provide clues as to whether a phrase, a paragraph, or a section is similar in nature to the ones preceding or following it. You do this by making the series structurally consistent. (This is called parallelism — using the same types of phrasing in the similar areas of a document. For example, you can balance verb forms with identical verb forms, as I did in this list, where all four items begin with an imperative: select, use, restate, and provide.)


Other articles in this series:

  • How to Make Your Own Dogfood Palatable
  • Make It Clear: Tips for adjusting your document’s vocabulary and sentence structure to be easily understood and appropriate for the intended audience. (next)
  • Make It Compelling: How to make your document’s tone attractive and inviting. (coming up)
  • Make It Correct: Why you need to sweat the small stuff by re-checking spelling, grammar, and consistent use of potentially variable words and constructions. (last in the series)