Structured writing

What is structured writing and how can it complement concept mapping?

Concept maps : nifty but austere    –    Concept mapping is an ingenious way of producing very concise overviews of knowledge. It is especially good for learning in its many guises, but uninviting when it comes to reading. Concept maps are easily transformed into bulleted lists or dense text. But these don´t really make for pleasant reading, either. How to turn concept maps into reader-friendly text without sacrificing conciseness, that’s the question I will answer here.

Structured writing : a possible answer    –    Information mapping is a methodology for structured writing designed to handle large amounts of information within the limits set by the human memory. Where Joseph Novak applied cognitive science to self-learning, Robert E. Horn did the same for communication, which is learning from others. I will show that the two are complementary by turning a concept map of structured writing into an example of structured writing.

Main principle :  chunking   –   George Miller (1955) showed that our memory is unable to handle more than 7 ± 2 chunks of information at a time. In 1965, Bob Horn applied this principle to the domain of communication by stating that all information must be chunked, i.e. “recoded” to 7 ± 2 chunks. This applies to sentences, paragraphs, sections, and chapters alike. He also replaced the “fuzzy” paragraph with the information block. True to the method, there are seven information blocks in this post.

Information block requirements   –   An information block is a bit like a paragraph, except that it has to meet 4 requirements or constraining principles. Other chunks of information (e.g. chapters) should meet the same requirements.

  • Chunking: group all information into manageable units, called blocks and maps.
  • Relevance: in each chunk only allow information related to its main point.
  • Consistency: for similar information use similar vocabulary.
  • Labeling: label every chunk with 3-5 words.

Horn identified more than 200 types of information blocks. For the main types, see below.

Content topic-key block matrix    –     In the early stages of structured writing, the main topics are identified in order to define the key blocks. Every main topic is then linked to one of seven information types and each information type is associated with a limited number of types of information blocks (see diagram below, for a sort of content topic-key block matrix see Namahn, p. 10). This allows the basic structure of the document to be drawn up.

Information mapping comprises 5 stages        The methodology  – and by the way, “Information Mapping” is a registered trademark, see Horn, 1993 –  is carried out in 5 main steps:

  1. Pre-writing analysis: of both the audiences and the content. This involves drawing up a user-topic task matrix.
  2. Information gathering analysis: to collect the content and determine the relations between the parts. Allow me to suggest that concept mapping could come handy in here.
  3. Organization analysis: in this stage, the content topic-key block matrix enables the writer to more easily achieve completeness and facilitates interaction with the subject matter specialist.
  4. Sequencing analysis: this is where blocks are sequenced properly for the task at hand, e.g. learning or reference.
  5. Presentation analysis is the stage where the format is adapted to e.g. paper or Internet.

Structured  writing:  uses    –    It was primarily developed for technical writing, i.e. the production of manuals and reference works. It has also been used for all communication in Fortune-500 companies. For many web writers it is a source of inspiration, because it is eminently suited for hypertext and online reading. Horn (1993) points out that the format has caught on very well in the media industry over the past 40 years even though the methodology is not always followed to the letter. It is also suggested that structured writing could be equally well used to approach scientific abstracts and other elements of the science information system (Horn, 1989).

Concept map of structured writing   –   Below concept map is based on Chapter 3 of Mapping hypertext : the analysis, organization, and display of knowledge for the next generation of on-line text and graphics  (Horn, 1989). My guess is that 80-90% of this concept map is covered in the 7 information blocks above.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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One Response to Structured writing

  1. These are genuinely impressive ideas in about blogging.
    You have touched some nice points here. Any way keep up

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