Organize to meet your readers’ needs
People read documents and visit websites to get answers. They want to know how to do something or what happens if they don't do something and they want to gain this knowledge quickly. Organize your document to respond to these concerns.
Think through the questions your audience is likely to ask and then organize your material in the order they'd ask them. For regulations and other complex documents, create a comprehensive table of contents. Your table of contents should be a reliable road map that users can follow to quickly find the information they need.
Regulations frequently address processes. Chronological organization is best for process information: you fill out an application to get a benefit; you submit the application; the agency reviews the application; the agency makes a decision on the application. Present the steps chronologically, in the order your user and your agency will follow them. The table of contents below is organized in a logical sequence for a grant program.
Part 791 — Gifted and Talented Students
Subpart A: How the Grant Program Works
Subpart B: How to Apply for an Award
791.10 Where do I write to obtain a grant application?
Subpart C: How the Secretary Makes an Award
791.20 How will the Secretary evaluate my application?
Subpart D: Grantees’ Rights and Responsibilities
791.30 Under what conditions may I use my grant award?
General first, exceptions, conditions, and specialized information later
Another useful organizing principle is to put general information first, specialized information or exceptions to the general information later. That way the material that addresses most readers in most situations comes first. For some documents this will work well along with a chronological organization. In others, it may be the primary organizing principle.
Here's an example of an administrative regulation that combines both organizing principles:
|Organized chronologically, and with general first|
Part 725--Claims For Benefits Under The Federal Mine Safety And Health Act
725.1 What does this program cover?
Who is Covered
725.201 Who is entitled to benefits under this program?
How to Apply for Benefits
725.301 How do I file a claim?
How to Appeal Agency Decisions
725.401 Can I appeal a decision if I don’t agree with it?
Limit levels to three or fewer
Crafting documents with four, five, or even more levels makes it difficult for your audience to keep track of where they are in the structure of your document. You should address this problem in your initial structuring of the document. Dividing your document into more pieces at the top levels should allow you to limit subdivisions below the major level to two. The Office of the Federal Register recommends that regulations contain no more than three levels, noting that more than three levels make regulations hard to read and use.
Address separate audiences separately
If you have more than one audience for your document, address each one separately. No one wants to have to wade through material meant for someone else. For more discussion of this issue, see the Guideline Address separate audiences separately.
- Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 70 (C).
- Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 3-5.
- Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, §1-23, www.archives.gov/federal-register/write/handbook/ddh.pdf.
- Redish, Janice C., How to Write Regulations and Other Legal Documents in Clear English, 1991, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, pp. 12-21.
- Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 15.