Blog Post

Sound structure = sound document core

As a writer and editor, I spend a lot of time thinking about the structure of documents.

A poorly structured document can create so many problems for readers … ideas that belong together may not be presented together, ideas may not be introduced in a logical order, and important concepts may be explained in the wrong place.

When I edit the work of others, it’s the structure that I focus on most. As I read through a draft document, I put together a brief document map (a few-word summary) and question whether the order is logical for a new reader. Often, I bring disparate parts of a document together, take the author’s original conclusion and move it near the beginning, and add an entirely new introduction.

Structure seems to be difficult to explain and difficult to teach. I don’t find the traditional document planning tools to be very helpful. Instead, I prefer to focus on structure after I’ve written a first draft (and the content questions are out of the way). I review structure by asking myself questions about how readers are likely to interact with the document I’m writing.

I have a communication text on my bookshelf that seems to me to be a remarkable example of document structure. The structure not only works in the sense of document order and idea clustering, it also works with the book’s design.

Jean-luc Doumont’s book, ‘Trees, Maps, and Theorems’ (2009, Principiae), is structured into a series of double-page-spreads. Each section includes a contents list that shows how the section fits within the entire book. Each double-page-spread includes 4 columns – one for the text, one for illustrations and comments, one for advice, and one for frequently asked questions. This structure is clearly explained at the beginning of the book. Most remarkably, each section and sub-section fits perfectly within its page. You never turn a page mid-sentence, and you never start a section mid-way down the page!

As a reader, it’s impossible to get lost in Doumont’s book. The text structure and document design work perfectly together to make the book a pleasure to work with. And though his writing style is slightly formal at times, the overall result is excellent. If you’re looking for an example of workable, interesting, and innovative book structure, you can’t go past ‘Trees, Maps, and Theorems’.