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Organize Your Ideas

Organize your ideas to get the most out of your writing.

About a year ago my wife informed me we were going to have a second child. It was something we’d been talking about for a little while, but then in an instant it became real. Immediately my heart was flooded with one, overwhelming emotion. I looked my wife in the eyes and said tenderly, “Well, crap! Where am I going to put all my stuff?”

I’m such an excellent father….

But, see, when we bought our current home we were childless. We got a three bedroom place, with a large master, an equally-large second bedroom (which I made into my library/office), and then a small third (which we made into a guest room). It wasn’t too long before we had need for a nursery, so we dressed the small room up in pretty colors, stuffed it with toys and changing tables and a crib, and eventually deposited a pretty baby girl in there.

The other room was mine, though. We painted it dark green and gray, hung thick black curtains and lined the walls with heavy bookcases. I filled the shelves with my books, and packed the rest of the floorspace with my computer desks. I loved my sprawling, quiet office tucked away in a back corner of the house. It also had a huge closet, stuffed floor to ceiling with spare computer parts, old drafts of manuscripts, and notebooks full of papers I’d written back in high school.

Then came the second child, and suddenly we couldn’t afford the luxury of a dedicated office. We decided to try having the kids share a room, but there was no way they were going to share that tiny nursery, so I packed half of my books away in boxes to throw in the attic, and set two whole bookcases out by the curb. I painted over my dark green walls and hung frilly white curtains. And then I started on the closet….

The closet in the nursery was about half the size of the closet in my old office, so I had to do some serious evaluating. For a long time, I had no idea how to compress all my stuff into the smaller space. Then one day I was grabbing a new tape measure at WalMart and I spotted a big, cheap, plastic set of drawers at the end of an aisle. Instantly, I knew that they were the answer. I took them home, tucked them into the back of the smaller closet, and got to work organizing.

Organization Methods

Okay, so where’s the writing parallel? I promised before a detailed post on organization methods, which are the key to implementing solid structure in the body of your document. It doesn’t matter whether your document is an email or a blog post or a hundred-page user manual — if your document contains more than one item, you need to find a good way of organizing that information.

In other words, your ideas are like my closet. And, extending the metaphor, your organization method is like my chest of drawers.

What you’ve got to do, to create a strong document, is find the best way to divide up that jumbled pile of thoughts and ideas and present them to the reader. Actually, let’s carry the metaphor farther, because you’re not just presenting these ideas one time to one reader. You’re gathering them together, collecting them, and then storing them in a document that lots of different people could come back to, at different times, looking for different information.

Your job is not just to make sure the right stuff is in the closet. You need to figure out where to put everything so that when your readers come looking, they can find exactly what they’re looking for.

Choosing Your Drawers

When it came to my closet conundrum, I chose the drawers I did because they were the perfect fit for my smaller closet. Shallow enough that they wouldn’t interfere with the doors closing, wide enough to fill most of the closet but with enough gap on the sides to stack boxes for more long-term storage. They were also pretty heavy-duty, which was useful because I wanted to put power supplies and hard drives and big piles of cables in them.

The point of all that? Your content dictates the proper organization method. A filing cabinet wouldn’t have done the job for me, because it would have been too deep. Shelves wouldn’t have been convenient, either, because I had too many loose parts. I needed heavy-duty drawers of a certain size.

You’ll encounter the same thing when you go to organize your document. Maybe your information follows a very specific linear path, or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe your information builds in degrees, or maybe it’s rigorously parallel.

If you’re writing a blog post or a short story, you probably want to use Chronological order, telling the event of your story in the order they happened. If you’re writing a business report, it might call for a Chronological order, or it might call for a Parallel construction — maybe a list of standalone problems and the solutions you’ve attempted so far.

Here are the most common organization methods, with a few thoughts about each:


A straightforward and relatively simple method, chronological organization sees you starting with the point furthest in the past, and moving continually toward the future. Most stories and works of fiction use a chronological or modified chronological organization, but any document describing events in time could be presented in a chronological organization.

Reverse Chronological.

Same as chronological, but the organization moves from the present back into the past. Note that in both cases it’s important to use a steady linear progression. Deviations — introducing events out of sequence — can create real confusion for the reader. Obviously some fiction works make great use of deviations (usually in the form of flashbacks), but even those have to be handled carefully, and there’s virtually no place at all for deviations in non-fiction works.


This method presents the elements of your document in groups based on theme or category. If you were writing an essay about war, for instance, you might divide it into sections based on ethics, politics, and economics. Thematic organization is often an obvious method that still leaves you needing some other method of organization within the thematic sections.


Parallel construction presents like things in a like way. The most common instance of parallel construction is the FAQ — a list of frequently asked questions, each presented as a standalone item, in an identical format. Question: Answer. Consistency is important in any organization method, but it’s crucial in Parallel construction, since the items in your list create easy direct comparisons.

Least to Greatest (or Greatest to Least).

Your document builds from a small starting point to a grand conclusion, or drills down from a major catastrophe all the way to the tiny bug causing the problem. Depending on the context, it might be “Least Expensive to Most Expensive,” “Least Offensive to Most Offensive,” or “Least Significant to Most Significant.” (Note that you can use the adjectives “Recent” and “Specific” to classify the first and last items in this list under this entry. They’re common enough to deserve their own entries, though.)

General to Specific (or Specific to General).

Your document starts with a broad statement and, from it, derives a more detailed conclusion (or, alternately, starts with a narrow premise and proves a much wider principle). This is the basic deductive method of the logical syllogism, and it lends itself well to argumentative documents pursuing a specific reader response.

The goal of each of these methods is to create a logical flow, so that a reader starting at the beginning can easily follow the thread of the document through to the end. When you employ it well (especially when you also include good headings), a reader can also approach your document looking for just one piece of information and find it quickly, just like I do when I go to my closet and pull out the drawer dedicated to power cords.

Enjoying the Benefits

There are other benefits to good organization, too. When I sorted all the stuff from my closet into drawers, I suddenly realized a lot of stuff didn’t fit. That wasn’t because I didn’t have enough drawers, or enough room, but just because some of the stuff in my closet didn’t match any actual purpose I could have for it.

In other words, it was junk. One of the biggest problems with unstructured documents is the prevalence of junk information. If you’re just throwing ideas into your paper, it’s hard for the reader to tell how the ideas are related to each other, but it can also be hard for you to recognize when they don’t really relate to each other.

Once you have an organization method that matches the purpose of your document, you’ll probably discover that some of the things you intended to say don’t really fit. That might require you to reevaluate your method, but it could just as likely indicate that those things don’t belong in your document. That’s one of the real benefits of a good organization method.

The other big benefit is clear transitions. How awesome would it be to write great transitions every time, without a lot of extra effort? It’s easy, with good organization, but you’ll have to wait for a future post to learn the details.

Photo credit Aaron Pogue.

5 Responses to “Organize Your Ideas”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    now I want to organize our filing cabinet. ha! great post…do you have plans to go more in depth on the styles of organization? I kind of assume you do, but I thought I’d ask.

  2. Trish Pogue says:

    I love organizing. If everything is in it’s place I feel at peace. When things are chaotic, I feel chaotic too.

    During my high school and college years, I struggled with connecting my thoughts. I thought I had organized my thoughts well but my teachers would criticize some of what I thought were the best parts. One unfriendly professor even wrote “So what?!” I was so mad and I didn’t understand. After reading this article I can see that I failed to organize and might have had too much junk information.

    With this knowledge, I may go back and reread some old papers. Thanks!

  3. Alan Pogue says:

    Other possible ways of organizing that are easy to remember are derived from basic interrogatory questions: Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why.
    Organizing based on “when” is chronological as discussed in today’s blog post. “Who,” on the other hand, organizes material based on the important people involved. “Where” organizes based on physical location, with various schemes, such as closest to the audience, next closest, and so on. Or, a “where” (or spatial) organization could start with a random place of interest, and procede clockwise, or counter-clockwise, or along the interstate, or along the railroad, etc.
    The most important part of an organizational structure (in my opinion, of course), is to have one.

  4. Courtney says:

    Everyone who has commented so far has said something significant.

    The main thing I have to say is that the heading “Choosing Your Drawers” made me giggle.

    The other thing is that I might go buy some of those plastic drawer storage thingies. Our office closet is a desperate, terrible place.

  5. Aaron Pogue says:

    I’d actually intended to go into more detail on the individual methods within this post, but two things happened: I discovered I had a lot more to say on the general topic, and I realized there’s not a lot to say about them (that isn’t covered by the names) unless you can give examples.

    So I’ll probably come back to them somewhere down the line, but I’ll need to find the opportunity to work them into specific documentation projects. Don’t be surprised if they come up as Technical Writing exercises along the way, though.

    You do love organizing. I was trying to figure out how to work your fascination with California Closets into the article, but it felt like it would just take too much explaining!

    I think the problem you described of trying to convey the connection between your ideas is a really common one. I know I have that problem, and I’m supposed to be an expert! The frustrating part is that your professor made good writing harder for you instead of making the problem clearer.

    I’m glad to know I can help a little bit with that. Thanks!

    (To all the readers who don’t already know, Alan’s my dad, and anything he says is worth paying attention to. He’s a born storyteller who’s been honing the craft all his life, he’s got a Doctorate in Communication, and he teaches Speech. He knows a thing or two about getting an idea across.)

    Anyway, Dad, thanks for the additional information. It makes perfect sense, but I hadn’t heard it presented like that before. I think (especially from the Speech perspective) you’ll have a thing or two to add to next week’s article on Conclusions. I look forward to it.

    I’m glad I got the laugh. It’s way too easy to take this stuff too seriously, and that’s where the stress comes from (and with it the anger and confusion that Trish mentioned). It’s possible to strive for excellent writing and still have fun with it. Dave Barry did it for years!

    I also find it interesting that you and Carlos both read this post and felt inspired to change your environments, as much as your writing styles. You’d think I’d be used to it by now (since I’m even pointing it out in blog articles), but the huge overlaps between writing and just being a person constantly surprise me.