Check contents

One of the most important ways you can review a rough draft is to check the contents. All the good transitions, good organization, and clear sentence structure in the world can't help a report that doesn't have the right information. Information in a report can be "wrong" in several ways:

If you can get a sense of how information is inadequate in a report rough draft, you should be well on your way to knowing what specifically to do to revise. One useful brainstorming tool is to think in terms of types of content.

Use the questions provided in document contents to review your rough draft for types of information to add or change.

Check the structure of your contents

There are two ways of looking at the organization of information in a document:

Much more detailed explanation is provided at coordination and subordination in paragraphs.

Check organization

If you have the right information in a report, at least you've got all the "right stuff" available for readers. However, it may still not be adequately organized—like when you've just moved and everything is a mess or still in boxes. You need two essential skills for reviewing the organization of a rough draft:

These are just a few possibilities. When the aim is informative, you arrange information so that you ensure that readers understand the basics before moving onto the complicated, technical stuff. When the aim is persuasive, you arrange things to maximize the persuasive effect on the readers, for example, by putting the strongest arguments first.

And in any case, you avoid mixing these approaches—for example, throwing out some data, then stating a few conclusions, and then doing this back and forth in a haphazard way. Keep the apples separate from the oranges!

Strengthen topic sentences and overviews

One of the best things you can do is go back through a rough draft and check to see if you can insert topic sentences and overviews at key points. When we write, we're not normally sure exactly where a paragraph or section is going in terms of its content and logic. Once it has "gotten there," it is often necessary to go back to the beginning and add some sort of overview or modify what's already there to make the overview clearer. Readers need to know where they are going in a report, what's coming up next, and for that matter where they've just been.

Having an overview in a report is like having a map when you're in a new city. Topic sentences and overviews offer a perspective on what's where: the topic, the subtopics, the purpose of the upcoming discussion, its relation to the previous section and to the document as a whole. (Now some of this involves transitions, which is the next element to review for.)

For detailed treatment of this topic, see topic sentences and overviews.

Strengthen coherence, transitions

You can have the right information in a report and have it organized properly, but something important can still go wrong. Readers can miss the "flow" of the ideas, have a hard time sensing how the chunks of information are related or connected to each other. What readers need is continuous guidance—which is what you the writer provide. And what you use to provide that guidance is called transitions—various devices that help readers along through a document. There is (or certainly should be) a logic that connects every sentence in a document and that dictates a certain sequence to those sentences.

See the chapter on coherence and transitions for detailed discussion and examples.

Check paragraph length

One last way to review your rough draft at the structure level is to check how you have defined the paragraph breaks. Paragraphs are odd creatures—some scholars of writing believe they don't exist and are just arbitrary break points that writers toss in whenever and wherever they damn well please. Sorry—in technical writing, the paragraph is a key player in the battle for clarity and comprehension. Although not always possible, paragraphs should occur where there is some shift in topic or subtopic or some shift in the way a topic is being discussed.

On a singlespaced full page of writing, look for at least one to four paragraph breaks—there's nothing magical about that average so don't treat it as if it were law. Just take a second look at those long paragraphs, and check for the possibility of paragraph breaks.

I would appreciate your thoughts, reactions, criticism regarding this chapter: your responseDavid McMurrey.