Fit-for-purpose document structure achieves results

In my trainings, document structure is one of the most common things participants say they want help with.  Fit-for-purpose document structure achieves results!

They hope I’m going to give them a standard report structure.


That’s like unicorn farts – would probably be lovely but there’s no such thing. 

Sorry bout it.

A quick re-cap

In part 1, I covered the upfront framing that:

  1. gives readers an incredibly satisfying experience, and
  2. engages the right audience

But I promised more.

So let’s move from reader behaviour to a reader-centric document structure.

Being readercentric (AKA empathy), outs us in the shoes of our READERS - Shelly Davies

How documents work

Let’s be very clear about how documents work.

  1. You’re writing a document because you need to achieve something. An outcome.
  2. To achieve YOUR outcome, the document has to work for THEM – the reader.
  3. The upfront framing either engages or loses your reader (we’ve already covered this).
  4. The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie: YOUR outcome).
  5. Shall I say it again? Write for THEM. Not for YOU. That’s the only way you’re going to ultimately get what you’re after.
A document is successful if it works for the reader - Shelly Davies

Purpose, purpose, bla, bla, bla

Any writing trainer worth their salt will tell you:

Identify the purpose of the document before you start writing

This is true. 

But, I find purpose – both the word and the concept, problematic.

Firstly, it’s overly and inappropriately used as a heading (how many documents have you read that have the heading purpose followed by a waffly, non-specific introduction??)

And second, when I ask people what the purpose of their document is, they give me answers like:

  • to inform…(for what purpose? We don’t tell people stuff for no reason!)
  • to analyse…(documents don’t analyse things. People do!)
  • to define…(see above!)
  • to describe…(see above above! For what purpose?)

None of which give a writer the drilled-down clarity we need to develop a fit-for-purpose structure.

Instead, I train people to ask 2 questions:

  1. What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
  2. If this document works, what will HAPPEN?

Both questions direct us to a tangible, observable action by our reader.

Know your audience, bla, bla, bla

Again, everyone tells us this.

And it’s also true.

"Buzzword jargon buzzword, hyperbole buzzword buzzword, trite rhyming platitude...Yep, looks good"

But what’s most common in business documents today is what we have multiple audiences, with differing needs.

So knowing that can make the writing process even more daunting and definitely not simple and clear.

How about trying this as an alternative?

List all the readers of your document, then consider?

  • Who will access it?
  • Who will use it?
  • Who will sign off on it?
  • Who might need to refer to it?

Now look back at the solid outcome you identified with questions 1 & 2 above.

And ask this 3rd question:

3. Who has the authority, ability, or position to make this document achieve its purpose?

Answer that and you’ve identified your primary readers. THEY matter most.

Write in a way that works for them, above anyone else.

(BTW – this also gives YOU the ability to push-back when an approver wants a document written a certain way, but you know that won’t work for the end-user.  Handy!)

Now build your document

Now you can create the headings, sections, and chunks of your document.

With clarity on outcome and influential readers, you can create a fit-for-purpose structure.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like.  But again, unicorn farts.

From where YOU sit, with YOUR reader knowledge, expert and insight, and with new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle.  You can now create a structure that will work best for you and your team.

Remember, ask yourself:

  • What does my PRIMARY READER need to know so I can get MY desired outcome?
  • Does my PRIMARY READER need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?

It’s all connected.

With clarity on outcome and influential readers, you can create fit-for-purpose document structure - Shelly Davies

Want to know more?

Bring me in for a training, or book a zoom one!  I’ve got so much more!!!!


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