Structure is how you deliver your message so that the reader understands and remembers the key points on the first read.

As a reader, I feel smart when the openings, headings, and paragraph structure focus my attention on what I need to know.

As the writer, if I only have a short time to edit, I spend my time on structure.

Let’s show you how to get started.

Try a practice edit of student lawyer Ellen Onione’s draft letter to Terry Feld, a client at the law school’s clinic for residential tenants.

Terry Feld’s Problem

Video Transcript (.pdf. 57 kb)

Let Structure Deliver Your Message

Let Structure Deliver Your Message - Post This Where You Write (.pdf. 510 kb)

Point-First Writing and Stress Positions

Put Important Information First and Last

Revise Paragraphs

The Final Check on Organization

You’ve only got a few minutes - spend them here

The Final Check

Now Let’s Edit Your Text: Try a Step by Step Approach

  1. First, test your point-first openings. This technique works really well with a colleague. You can even exchange documents. Each of you read the opening paragraph and the first paragraph under each heading. Can you or your colleague see right away what is important and why?

    Now, read only the first (Introduction) and last (Conclusion) section. Remember, some busy readers will only do exactly this before deciding if they need to read the whole text. Do the introduction and conclusion have the same message and emphasis?

    If you have time, read the first and last paragraph of each section to see if they also have the same message and emphasis.

  2. Next, cut and paste the headings into a new document. You will immediately see what stands out for the reader. Now ask yourself:

    1. Are the ideas in the right order?
    2. Is there anything missing?

  3. Audit Your Headings. Review our Heads Up on Headings video or use our Headings Checklist below for a deeper review. Do your headings:

    1. Tell a story?
      Original Revised
      The Landlord Violated The Plaintiff’s Statutory Rights. The Landlord Violated The Tenant’s Statutory Rights By Changing The Locks Without A Court Order.
    2. Develop the idea?
      Original Revised
      When Will Courts Enforce Restrictive Covenants? Restrictive Covenants Must Be Reasonable and Unambiguous in Time, Geographic Scope, and the Activities Curtailed
    3. Support the purpose?
      Original in Persuasive Memo Revised
      The Plaintiff Has Complied with the Limitations Act The Plaintiff Complied with the Limitations Act by Starting Her Action Immediately Upon Discovering the Defective Pipe
      What are the Patient’s Rights? A Patient’s Right to Privacy Includes Keeping Medical Records Confidential
    4. Fit the document?

      Some documents have standard structural headings that readers expect, or that law firms and courts require. For example, one law firm may want all legal memos to have headings for Facts, Issues, and Brief Answers, while another law firm may want the memo to start with the heading: Brief Answer. A court may require all motions to include a heading, Procedural History.

      You need to include the required headings. You can still add descriptive headings that tell a story, develop an idea, or support the purpose.

  4. Now make margin notes next to each paragraph with one or two words that capture what you intended to be the paragraph’s main idea.

    1. Does each paragraph have one main idea? If it is difficult to come up with a one or two-word summary, you have too many ideas in that paragraph.
    2. If you are working with a colleague, can your colleague tell you the message in each paragraph without looking at your margin notes?

  5. Next, cut the topic sentences and the last sentences from each paragraph and paste under the appropriate headings. Now you have an outline of the whole document, showing the sequence of ideas. Looking at the outline will give you the cold reality of your structure. You can use this outline, along with your margin notes, for a deeper review of each section and each paragraph.

    1. You can now look more closely at each section. For each section, ask:
      1. Does the opening paragraph announce the section’s main idea?
      2. Do the middle paragraphs develop the main idea?
      3. Does the last paragraph pull it all together to emphasize the important point?

    2. Now look at each individual paragraph.
      1. Do you have a topic sentence that tells the reader something important?
      2. Does the topic sentence set out the paragraph’s main idea?
      3. Did you make your first words count? Don’t waste your opening words with trivial or irrelevant information.
      4. Don't waste the topic sentence repeating what you said in the heading.
      5. Does every middle sentence relate to the main idea and are they in a logical order?
      6. Does your last sentence emphasize the paragraph’s point? You want the reader to leave that paragraph thinking about your point.
      7. Don't waste the last sentence by just repeating your topic sentence.
      8. Don’t waste your last sentence by hinting at the topic sentence of the next paragraph.

    What questions will you add to your personal editing checklist to help you review the structure?