Monday, November 14, 2011

How to How-To: Part 4 - Organizing with Tables

Another way to organize information is with a table. A table contains columns and rows, which readers scan to find what they need.

Use tables to:
  • Provide details about general information in a step
  • Define glossary terms
  • Solve problems
  • Catalog information
Structuring instructions
When you write instructions for a task, here’s a great way to organize them:

1. Introduction. A paragraph or two that describes what readers are about to do. also, state what they need to know or have done before doing this task.
2. The steps. Go all out here with your lists and tables. Include one complete action in each step, and include up to seven steps for each task. (Readers can become disoriented after seven.) If your task requires more than seven steps, break the task into two.
3. Notes, tips, and warnings. Place extraneous information after the steps, unless readers need those details earlier.
Keep these points in mind:
  • You can use lists within tables, and you can insert tables within lists.
  • Use parallel construction (the same grammatical structure) within a list or table. In other words, don't make the first item a full sentence, the next a fragment, and the third a question.
  • Follow this general rule: If you have more than three items, use a table.
About style
You might wonder what capitalization and punctuation you should use in lists and tables. This question plagues every editorial group at least once a week, and here are some answers:
  • Ask the editor you're working with for a copy of the house style guide, a document that describes the preferred word usage, capitalization, punctuation, grammar choices, and formatting options to use when you write for that house. If you follow their style, you'll be the answer to your editor's prayers.
  • Create your own style guide, and follow it consistently. For help, buy a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press Stylebook.
Making it work for you
Try reorganizing your own paragraphs into lists, steps, and tables.

Happy organizing!

Copyright © 2011 by Marilyn C. Hilton

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