Structural Integrity

For what I do, one of the challenges it to prevent the reader from flipping though pages. If the reader is flipping pages, searching for an elusive bit of information, then my document structure has failed.

You can tell a story different ways. If you are looking at a sequence or procedure, then you probably want to organize your document chronologically. But if I’m trying to describe a situation, I prefer an inverted pyramid structure. Start with the wider picture, then drill down into specific details. Each section can have an independent internal structure as well.

In most of the reports I write I’ll start with a thesis statement describing the problem my agency is trying to address and why we should care. Next I’ll have a narrative and a timeline that together lay out the sequence of events and defines each important location, person or organization, and activity. What follows is a detailed description of each of these people and activities, and it all ends in a set of conclusions and a recommendation for further action. The layout, section headings, and order are standardized. The report itself is usually no more than five or six pages, although the supplementary materials can run to several hundred. The standardization helps my readers because they can go through any of the dozens of reports I’ve written and know where to find any particular piece of information. I also developed this structure because it aids storytelling, which is key to understanding.

I recently acquired a copy of a similar report prepared for my counterparts at the federal level. It was… well, diplomacy prevents me from giving an honest opinion. There was good and useful information in there, but I had to laboriously dig it out. The report was prepared for a contractor, based on requirements spelled out in the contract, and it followed the structure of the contract. You could lay the two documents side by side and run down the requirements like a checklist: “That’s done, that’s done, that’s done… cut them a check.” The report was exactly what the agency asked for, and not at all what they really needed.

I had to read my own copy of this report three or four times. I made notes, I added marginalia, I crossed out blocks of irrelevant information, I winkled out cross-references. Their thesis statement was, my hand to God on this, “This report fulfills the requirements of contract #XXXXXXXX.” I looked, and could not find where they said, “Here is the actual, real-world problem the agency decided was important enough to spend taxpayer money trying to solve.” [0] I got no sense at all that anyone, including the report’s author, understood the underlying story. What they produced was 45 pages of trivia, devoid of context, and a hinderance to understanding, and all because they conformed to a document structure that was completely wrong for the question at hand [1].

Data is meaningless in isolation. A collection of related data becomes information. Information in context becomes knowledge, and knowledge within a culture is what we call wisdom. The first step, turning data into information, requires an appropriate document structure that reveals the relationships among the facts.

[0] This is how government gets the reputation of being one expensive and unnecessary boondoggle. The work done was valuable— it was only the work product (the report) that was bollocks.
[1] I’m sure it worked great for getting paid, though.

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