In my last article (“Is that logical?”) I discussed a way to test the logic of a statement. But a document filled with logical statements can still be gobbledegook if the statements are not linked together logically.
So how can we assess the overall logic of a document?
The first step is to look at the strategic fit that the document is designed to meet.
If you have access to the author of the document you can simply ask her what the purpose of the document is and who it is written for. If you don’t have access to the author (or if you are writing the document yourself) then you will need to define these for yourself.
The focussing question
Different types of literature will have different aims, tones and styles.
Technical documents (and business writing generally) are designed to raise and answer a specific question. For example “how do I use this computer system” or “Should we invest $8m in this project”.
So a good technical document should make clear both:
- What question it is addressing; and
- What the answer or conclusion is.
In fact, everything in the document should support the reader in either accepting or rejecting the answer to the question the document addresses. This is one of the challenges I find when writing because I often have lots of “exciting” information to share and thus face a risk of rambling through distracting material.
I find the best way to start a document is therefore to be clear on my “focussing question”. This is an idea taken from User Based Design and, as the name suggests, is designed to keep the author on track. The focussing question takes the form of:
How can I communicate [my core message] to [my audience] so that [The document achieves an outcome]
For example this article might have address either of the following questions:
How can I communicate a way to assess the internal logic in documents to students of a class I ran so that they can refresh their understanding of the material we covered verbally.
How can I communicate a way to understand the meaning of a document to any reader of my blog so that they can better deal with the gumph that passes over their desk every day.
You can see from this that even this simple article could be written quite differently depending on my focus.
Where you are assessing a new document (or even a series of documents) then you can guess what question and audience they address and what outcome they hope to achieve when you first look at the document. Then you can re-assess this as you learn more about the document(s).
This will help you to assess the overall purpose of each document and also to help identify gaps, assumptions and risks where things do not seem to consistently address the questions you thought they did.
On the other hand, if you are writing your own document then becoming clear on the question you are addressing, the audience and the reason you want them to read the document will make your document far clearer.
A generic opening
Barbara Minto wrote an excellent book on creating useful and compelling reports and I took the following approach directly from it (Note that I read the 1987 version, but there is apparently a new version out).
All business documents should have an opening sentence or paragraph. Many writers think that the purpose of this is to entice the reader to read on. But Minto explains that the purpose of the opening is to both:
- Give the reader the context to understand the rest of the document; and
- Give them the chance to stop reading if either they are not interested in the topic.
So Minto suggests that each opening statement should take the form of “An existing situation; a complication and a resolution”. The existing situation should be a statement that the audience will accept as true, so that you have a starting point. The complication is the reason you are writing the document and the resolution is what the reader can expect to find in the document.
For example I might write “We held a class on writing (“the situation”) and I committed to provide more information on assessing the logic within documents (“the complication”) and so here it is (“the resolution”).
This structure gives the reader the context of where the document comes from and why they should read it (or skip it). Just as importantly the statement gives an anchor for the reader to use when making sense of the rest of the document.
So, you can start your document by writing out your focussing questions for the reader, or you can turn it into a simple “story structure” as suggested by Minto. I recommend the Minto approach because it is simple, clean and flows easily.
But what about other people’s documents? I recommend creating a simple story structure for each section of the document your are reviewing and then seeing if the stories connect to each other. In an excellent document, there will be one introduction for the whole document and each section will expand on that simple statement. In a really excellent document you will even notice that each section begins with the resolution of the last one and adds a complication that then gets resolved in the section, leading naturally to the next question, that in turn is addressed in the next section.
All of this means that:
- If you are writing a document, you can apply the approach shown here to produce a readable and useful document;
- If you are reading a single technical document you have a process for understanding the overall logic (or lack thereof) within the document; and
- When you find myriad documents that are supposed to relate to the same project you can assess whether they relate, whether they duplicate or contradict each other and how they all hang together generally.
My next article will drill further into creating a logical structure within the document, once you have a clear focussing question and know the “story” you are telling.