Chapter 4: Organizing Your Ideas

Venecia Williams

Learning Objectives

  • Understand how to organize your document for clarity
  • Explore how to write effective paragraphs and sentences
  • Evaluate how to use reverse outlining to improve writing

Successful business communicators meet their audience’s needs. Organization is one more way to do that. When a document is well-organized, readers can easily get the information they need. Good organization also helps readers see the connections between ideas.

We know that time is one of the biggest constraints in modern business communication. Most people get a lot of emails, and so often must skim. If you can’t capture your audience’s attention in the first few seconds, you risk losing it completely. When organizing business documents, we, therefore, need to ask ourselves some questions:

  • What is the most important thing for the audience to know?
  • What does the audience need to know first? Second?
  • How can I draw attention to key points using organizational aids like headings and bullet points?
  • Will my audience understand the connections between my ideas? If not, how can I help them?
  • Should all the information be in the document, or should some of it be in attachments or links?

Using headings and subheadings, lists and paragraphs as some way to organize a message to capture and keep your audience’s attention.

Using Headings and Subheadings

Headings and subheadings help to organize longer documents. Because the text is larger and often bold, the reader’s attention is drawn to them. Headings and subheadings are especially useful when you’re writing a document like a report, which often has different audiences looking for different types of information.

To write effective headings:

  • Use parallelism: When you start a pattern, you should keep using it. For example, if you started with the heading “Email Conference Attendees” and then used “Print Conference Brochures,” you would disrupt the pattern if your next heading was “Contacting Catering Service.”
  • Use consistent sizes and fonts: In your document, you might have different “levels” of headings. Apply the same font and size to each “level” of headings in your document.
  • Use limited articles: An article is a word like “the” or “a.” Too many of these can crowd your headings. For example, instead of saying “The Academic Barriers to Student Success,” you could say “Academic Barriers to Student Success.”

Using Lists

Lists are an easy way to show readers the connections between ideas. Bullet points often draw the reader’s attention, so they’re the perfect organizational aid for helping a reader to see the next steps or important recommendations. Lists also remove the need for awkward transition words like ‘firstly’ and ‘secondly.’ To write effective lists:

  • Use parallelism: Again, if you start a pattern, you should continue it.
  • Keep between 3 to 6 bullet points: Too many bullet points are hard for readers to follow.
  • Punctuate the list effectively: If you’re using a paragraph list, put a colon after the topic sentence, then capitalize the first word.

Writing Effective Paragraphs

Unlike punctuation, which can be subjected to specific rules, no ironclad guidelines exist for shaping paragraphs. If you presented a text without paragraphs to a dozen writing instructors and asked them to break the document into logical sections, chances are that you would receive different opinions about the best places to break the paragraph. In part, where paragraphs should be placed is a stylistic choice. Some writers prefer longer paragraphs that compare and contrast several related ideas, whereas others stick to having one point per paragraph. In the workplace, many writers use shorter paragraphs and even use one-line paragraphs since this allows readers to scan the document quickly. If your readers have suggested that you take a hard look at how you organize your ideas, or if you are unsure about when you should begin a paragraph or how you should organize final drafts, then you can benefit by reviewing paragraph structure.

Structuring A Paragraph

We’ve already learned that every piece of workplace communication should have a purpose. That’s also true of paragraphs. In general, you should have one purpose per paragraph, although for the overall flow of the document you might want to combine two points. Let’s take a look at this customer service email in Figure 4.1.

Dear Ms. Tran,

Thank you for your patience as we investigated your missing clothing order, which you brought to our attention on Tuesday.

Provides a context for writing.
Once we received your email, we contacted both our warehouse and FedEx. The warehouse confirmed that your order was processed on Feb. 19th and FedEx confirmed that a shipping label was created on Feb. 20th. Unfortunately, we were not able to locate the package from that point. Tells the reader what the writer did to solve the problem.
We are sorry for the inconvenience. Since we value your business and we know that you have been waiting for your clothes for two weeks, we would like to offer you two choices:

  1. We can refund your money and give you a 25% discount toward future purchases.
  2. We can send your clothing order with free one-day shipping and still give you a 25% discount toward future purchases.

Apologizes and offers a solution

Please let us know which option you choose and we will immediately process your order. If you have any questions, you can also call me at 604-123-4557. Tells the reader what to do next.
Thank you again for your patience. We appreciate your business and look forward to making this right.


Makiko Hamimoto


Ends the communication on a positive note, looking towards the future.

Figure 4.1 | Customer Service Email

As you can see, most of the paragraphs have only one point. In short communication, it’s enough to simply understand what role the paragraph plays in your writing. In longer or more important communication, you may choose to use topic sentences to structure your paragraphs.

What is a topic sentence?

A topic sentence summarizes the main idea or the purpose of a paragraph. In business writing, the topic sentence usually comes at the beginning of the paragraph. Then, the rest of the paragraph provides the supporting details. Sometimes, a writer will choose to put the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph in order to break bad news or build the reader up to a point. A topic sentence functions in several important ways:

  • It informs the reader of the paragraph’s direction: The topic sentence announces the direction of the paragraph’s conversation. With the help of an effective topic sentence, readers will better understand what the paragraph will be about.
  • It guides the reader through the major points that support the writer’s purpose: Clearly worded topic sentences may help readers find the author’s position or argument more convincing.
  • It places boundaries on the paragraph’s content: The body of the paragraph provides support for the topic sentence. The paragraph should only include evidence and details that relate directly to the boundary established by the topic sentence.

Topic sentence: This year, our Instagram marketing program outperformed our other social media campaigns.

Details within the paragraph:

    • We hosted a unicorn-themed party for Instagram influencers in the Vancouver area, which led to our hashtag trending locally and a 167% increase in local sales of our Pastel Cloud Eye Paints.
    • Our Instagram influencer program continues to drive sales. For every $1 in product we give to an influencer, we make $23.
    • Instagram accounts for 57% of social-media-driven traffic to our website and 78% of all social-media-driven purchases.
    • For every dollar we spent on Instagram marketing, we made $7.45.

When the topic sentence prefaces the sentences with supporting details, the purpose of the paragraph is clearer to the reader. Together, the topic sentence and the body sentences create a well-organized and easy to follow paragraph:

This quarter, Instagram marketing was the top performer of our social media marketing plan. For every dollar we spent on Instagram marketing, we made $7.45. Overall, Instagram accounts for 57% of social-media-driven traffic to our website and 78% of all social-media-driven purchases. Much of this success is due to our Instagram influencer program. For every $1 in free product we give out, we make $23 in product sales. In May, we also hosted a unicorn-themed party for Instagram influencers in the Vancouver area to promote our Pastel Cloud Eye Paints, which led to our hashtag trending locally and a 167% increase in local product sales. We therefore recommend investing more heavily in Instagram next quarter in order to expand our influencer program.

Organization Within Paragraphs

Note that in the previous paragraph, the ideas are organized logically. The author starts out with the topic sentence, then organizes the rest of the information from most general to most specific. The logic of the paragraph is, therefore:

  1. Instagram marketing was successful.
  2. It was successful because overall it was profitable.
  3. It was profitable because of the Instagram influencer program.
  4. Therefore, we should expand the Instagram influencer program.

Notice how the author uses transition words to link these ideas.

This quarter, Instagram marketing was the top performer of our social media marketing plan. For every dollar we spent on Instagram marketing, we made $7.45. Overall, Instagram accounts for 57% of social-media-driven traffic to our website and 78% of all social-media-driven purchases. Much of this success is due to our Instagram influencer program. For every $1 in free product we give out, we make $23 in product sales. In May, we also hosted a unicorn-themed party for Instagram influencers in the Vancouver area to promote our Pastel Cloud Eye Paints, which led to our hashtag trending locally and a 167% increase in local product sales. We therefore recommend investing more heavily in Instagram next quarter in order to expand our influencer program.

Too many transition words make your paragraph feel forced. In this instance, however, a few transition words help the reader to see the connections that the author is making.

If you’re having trouble organizing your paragraph, you can try the following formats:

  • General to specific: This is the most common format, and is the one used in the paragraph above.
  • Specific to General: Building the reader up to a point. This is usually used to soften bad news since it helps prepare the reader for the news.
  • Cause and Effect: Show how one thing caused another thing to happen.
  • Chronological: Describe events as they happened.
  • Narrative: Describe a scene. Though this form is usually used in creative writing, it is often used in the workplace in incident reports, donations letters and other forms of storytelling.

Paragraph Transitions

Readers expect paragraphs to relate to each other as well as to the overall purpose of a text. Establishing transitional sentences for paragraphs can be one of the most difficult challenges you face as a writer because you need to guide the reader with a light hand. When you are too blatant about your transitions, your readers may feel patronized. Effective paragraph transitions signal to readers how two consecutive paragraphs relate to each other. The transition signals the relationship between the “new information” and the “old information.”

For example, the new paragraph might:

  • elaborate on the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • introduce a related idea
  • continue a chronological narrative
  • describe a problem with the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • describe an exception to the idea presented in the preceding paragraph
  • describe a consequence or implication of the idea presented in the preceding paragraph.

In the following example, can you find the transition between these two ideas?

In 2000, then CEO Wen Xie gave a presentation that set a bold new direction for our company. She recognized that the marketplace was shifting and we needed to embrace digital technology. She said that “all employees can be potential change-makers within the organization” and she announced a bold new retraining and restructuring program. The result: our company experienced unprecedented growth.

Over 20 years later, the principles Xie laid out still apply. Though technology has changed, the company’s commitment to empowering all employees to be “changemakers” remains. That’s why we have launched a new online portal for employees to give their ideas for the improvement of the company.

Here, the writer outlines two ideas:

  • In 2000, Xie changed the direction of the company.
  • The organization has launched a new online portal for employees to give their ideas.

What’s the connection? That the principles Xie outline still apply, and that’s the reason for the new online portal. Without connection words like “still,” it would be hard for the audience to see how a speech given in 1997 relates to the new online portal.

As the above examples illustrate, effective paragraph transitions signal relationships between paragraphs. They help the reader see the connections that you are making and move easily through your argument.

Below are some terms that are often helpful for signalling relationships among ideas.

Chronology before, next, earlier, later, during, after, meanwhile, while, until, then, first, second
Comparison also, similarly, likewise, in the same way, in the same manner
Contrast however, but, in contrast, still, yet, nevertheless, even though, although
Clarity for example, for instance, in other words
Continuation and, also, moreover, additionally, furthermore, another, too
Consequence as a result, therefore, for this reason, thus, consequently
Conclusion in conclusion, in summary, to sum up

Effective Sentences

We have talked about the organization of documents and paragraphs, but what about the organization of sentences? You have probably learned in English courses that each sentence needs to have a subject and a verb; most sentences also have an object. There are four basic types of sentences: declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory. Here are some examples:

  • Declarative – You are invited to join us for lunch.
  • Imperative – Please join us for lunch.
  • Interrogative – Would you like to join us for lunch?
  • Exclamatory – I’m so glad you can join us!

Declarative sentences make a statement, whereas interrogative sentences ask a question. Imperative sentences convey a command, and exclamatory sentences express a strong emotion. Interrogative and exclamatory sentences are easy to identify by their final punctuation, a question mark and an exclamation point, respectively. In business writing, declarative and imperative sentences are more frequently used.

There are also compound and complex sentences, which may use two or more of the four basic types in combination:

  1. Simple sentence- Sales have increased.
  2. Compound sentence- Sales have increased, and profits continue to grow.
  3. Complex sentence- Sales increased when we changed our social media strategy.
  4. Compound complex sentence- Although the economy has been in recession, sales have increased, and we have sales staff to thank for it.

In our simple sentence, “sales” serves as the subject and “have increased” serves as the verb. The sentence can stand alone because it has the two basic parts that constitute a sentence. In our compound sentence, we have two independent clauses that could stand alone; they are joined by the conjunction “and.” In our complex sentence, we have an independent clause, which can stand on its own, combined with a fragment (not a sentence) or dependent clause which, if it were not joined to the independent clause, would not make any sense. The fragment “when we changed our social media strategy” on its own would have us asking “what happened?” as the idea is incomplete. Complex compound sentences combine a mix of independent and dependent clauses, and at least one of the clauses must be dependent.

The ability to write complete, correct sentences is like any other skill; it comes with practice. The more writing you do, as you make an effort to use correct grammar, the easier it will become. Reading audiences, particularly in a business context, will not waste their time on poor writing and will move on. Your challenge as an effective business writer is to know what you are going to write and then to make it come across, via words, symbols, and images, in a clear and concise manner.

Sentences should avoid being vague and focus on specific content. Each sentence should convey a complete thought; a vague sentence fails to meet this criterion. The reader is left wondering what the sentence was supposed to convey.

  • Vague: We can facilitate solutions in pursuit of success by leveraging our core strengths.
  • Specific: By using our knowledge, experience, and capabilities, we can achieve the production targets for the coming quarter.

Effective sentences also limit the range and scope of each complete thought, avoiding needless complexity. Sometimes writers mistakenly equate long, complex sentences with excellence and skill. Clear, concise, and often brief sentences serve to communicate ideas and concepts in effective and efficient ways that complex, hard-to-follow sentences do not.

  • Complex: Air transportation features speed of delivery in ways few other forms of transportation can match, including tractor-trailer and rail, and is readily available to the individual consumer and the corporate client alike.
  • Clear: Air transportation is accessible and faster than railroad or trucking.

Effective sentences are complete, containing a subject and a verb. Incomplete sentences, also known as sentence fragments, demonstrate a failure to pay attention to detail. They often invite misunderstanding, which is the opposite of our goal in business communication.

  • Fragments: Although air transportation is fast. Costs more than trucking.
  • Complete: Although air transportation is fast, it costs more than trucking.

Reverse Outlining

Often, outlining is recommended as an early component of the writing process as a way to organize and connect thoughts so the shape of what you are going to write is clear before you start drafting it. This is a tool many writers use that is probably already familiar to you.

Reverse outlining, though, is different in a few ways. First, it happens later in the process, after a draft is completed rather than before. Second, it gives you an opportunity to review and assess the ideas and connections that are actually present in the completed draft. This is almost an opposite approach from traditional outlining, which considers an initial set of ideas that might shift as the draft is written and new ideas are added or existing ones are moved, changed, or removed entirely. A reverse outline can help you improve the structure and organization of your already-written draft, letting you see where support is missing for a specific point or where ideas don’t quite connect on the page as clearly as you wanted them to.

How to create a reverse outline

  1. At the top of a fresh sheet of paper, write your primary purpose for the text you want to outline. This should be the purpose exactly as it appears in your draft, not the purpose you know you intended. If you can’t find the actual words, write down that you can’t find them in this draft of the message; it’s an important note to make!
  2. Draw a line down the middle of the page, creating two columns below your message purpose.
  3. Read, preferably out loud, the first body paragraph of your draft.
  4. In the left column, write the single main idea of that paragraph (again, this should be using only the words that are actually on the page, not the ones you want to be on the page). If you find more than one main idea in a paragraph, write down all of them. If you can’t find a main idea, write that down, too.
  5. In the right column, state how the main idea of that paragraph supports the purpose.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 for each body paragraph of the draft.

Once you have completed these steps, you have a reverse outline! It might look a little something like the reverse outline shown in Figure 4.2.

An example of a reverse outline. Thesis: Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the Hunger Games, creates as much danger for herself as she faces from others over the course of the film. The graph is split into two columns: main idea and how it supports the thesis. "She volunteers to fight in the games" is listed under main idea and "This is the root of most of the immediate danger she finds herself in" connects the idea to the thesis. The main idea of "Shooting the apple out of the pig's mouth" is supported by "This draws more attention to her and essentially puts a target on her back."
Figure 4.2 | Reverse Outline Example

Working with the results of your reverse outline

Now what? You’ve probably already made some observations while completing this. Do you notice places where you are repeating yourself in your message? Do you notice places where some of your paragraphs have too many points or don’t clearly support the purpose of the message?

There are a number of observations that can be made with the aid of a reverse outline, and a number of ways it can help you strengthen your messages.

  • If multiple paragraphs share the same idea you might try combining them, paring back the information for that specific idea so it doesn’t feel imbalanced in how much space it takes up, and/or organizing these paragraphs about the same point so they are next to each other in the paper.
  • Each paragraph should have only one primary focus. If you notice a paragraph does have more than one main idea, you could look for where some of those ideas might be discussed in other paragraphs and move them into a paragraph already focusing on that point. You could also select just the one main idea you think is most important to this paragraph and cut the other points out. Another option would be to split that paragraph into multiple paragraphs and expand on each main idea.
  • If it was hard for you to find the main idea of a paragraph, it will also be hard for your reader to find. For paragraphs that don’t yet have a main idea, consider whether the information in that paragraph points to a main idea that just isn’t written on the page yet. If the information does all support one main idea, adding that idea to the paragraph might be all that is needed. Alternatively, you may find that some of the ideas fit into other paragraphs to support their ideas, or you may not need some of them in the next draft at all.
  • It should be clear how the main idea of each paragraph supports the purpose of the message. If that connection is not clear, ask yourself how the main idea of that paragraph does further your purpose and then write that response.
  • If a message starts out introducing something that is a problem in a community, then presents a solution to the problem, and then talks about why the problem is a problem, this organization is likely to confuse readers. Reorganizing to introduce the problem, discuss why it is a problem, and then move on to proposing a solution would do good work to help strengthen the next draft of this paper. If there are gaps in reasoning, you may need to move, revise, or add transition statements after moving paragraphs around.


Organization is the key to clear writing. Organize your document using key elements, an organizing principle, and an outline. Organize your paragraphs and sentences so that your audience can understand them, and use transitions to move from one point to the next.

End of Chapter Activities

4a. Thinking About the Content

What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?

4b. Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

  1. What functions does organization serve in a document? Can they be positive or negative?
  2. Create an outline from a sample article or document. Do you notice an organizational pattern?
  3. Which of the following sentences are good examples of correct and clear business English? For sentences needing improvement, describe what is wrong and write a sentence that corrects the problem. Discuss your answers with your classmates.
    1. Marlys has been chosen to receive a promotion next month.
    2. Because her work is exemplary.
    3. At such time as it becomes feasible, it is the intention of our department to facilitate a lunch meeting to congratulate Marlys
    4. As a result of budget allocation analysis and examination of our financial condition, it is indicated that salary compensation for Marlys can be increased to a limited degree.
    5. When will Marlys’s promotion be official?
    6. I am so envious!
    7. Among those receiving promotions, Marlys, Bob, Germaine, Terry, and Akiko.
    8. The president asked all those receiving promotions to come to the meeting.
    9. Please attend a meeting for all employees who will be promoted next month.
    10. Marlys intends to use her new position to mentor employees joining the firm, which will encourage commitment and good work habits.

4c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation

Organizing information for the audience

The Maple All-Suite Hotel is a boutique hotel that is located in Vancouver and has 90 rooms. They recently upgraded their key card system as they had received numerous guest complaints that their key cards were malfunctioning. There have been no guest complaints with the new system. However, the employees find it challenging to use the manual as it is long and uses technical language.

The Duty Manager, Donneil Chance, was asked to extract the relevant information from the 500-page manual and simplify the language to make it easier for the team to understand. While doing so, she notices that the manual has troubleshooting instructions related to all potential guest and employee issues with the new system. However, this information has no clear sections or headings.

In hospitality, the goal is to resolve all guest issues as quickly as possible. It would be time-consuming for an employee to find the information they need to solve any problems promptly using the manual in its current format.

How should Donneil organize the required information into a simplified manual?

4d. Writing Activity

Find some articles about the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, then read this article from the BBC about gaffes made by former BP boss Tony Hayward. Evaluate some of his actions or comments that have caused controversy. In a crisis why is it important to plan your message?


Content Attribution

This chapter contains content from Business Communication For Everyone (c) 2019 by Arley Cruthers and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license and Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative.


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Chapter 4: Organizing Your Ideas Copyright © 2020 by Venecia Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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