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Organizing Ideas Book Review

In the Journal of the Society for Technical Communication.

Spence describes Organizing Ideas: The Key to Effective Communication as a cookbook, and this is true. It is a collection of recipes for producing effective business writing. But just as a well-written cookbook teaches the reader essential kitchen skills, using the Spence & Company guide to decision-oriented communication will teach the writer essential business writing skills. I recommend adding it to your reference bookshelf.

This book is well-written, presents concepts clearly and simply, and has a layout that is unfussy, with just enough formatting to skim for major points in each chapter. The chapters build on the skill learned in the previous chapter.

Throughout the book, attention is paid to the usual best practices for business writing. The Spence method endorses plain language, simple sentence structures, and signposting important sections. It recommends putting technical details and databases into attachments instead of the document’s body.

The Spence method uses the disciplines of rhetoric. The author argues that all business writing should persuade the reader to make a decision or to take action. The Spence & Company method combines three rhetorical tools of persuasion: Logos (appeal to logic or reason); Ethos (appeal to character or trust); and Pathos (appeal to motivation or inspiration).

Reader needs are a frequent checkpoint through the guide. The Reader Profile is critical to this process as it identifies the primary and secondary decision-makers or readers.

Organizing Ideas uses the same structure for all business communications, customizing the structure to the target reader and communication type. The framework always has an Opening Statement (Why are you writing this document? What is your document about? How will you discuss your subject? What decision or action do you recommend?), a Body (all the data, issues, and conclusions that support your Recommendation), and a Summing Up (restate your position; recap your conclusion; repeat your recommendations.)

Worksheets are key tools in the Spence & Company method. There are worksheets for every type of business communication, from email and texting, through long and short memos and reports to slide deck presentations. Every worksheet is an outline of questions and answers (Q & A). Starting with the major sections—Opening Statement, Body, Summing Up— the writer works through the Q & A to gather the information needed for the communication. Instead of starting with a blank page, a writer using a worksheet can jump-start a document from outline to first draft.

A companion book, Business Writing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, provides every type of blank worksheet including dozens of before and after sample documents that illustrate how the Spence method will improve the clarity of any communication.

I adopted the email worksheet; it works! Responses are arriving sooner with better information. This is a useful, helpful book for business writers and technical communicators.

Marcia Shannon
Marcia Shannon is an STC member and newly STC-certified writer (CPTC-Foundation). Her more than 30 years of business experience cover IT, mortgage, banking, and insurance. Marcia has written and taught procedures as well as provided user support. Currently, she writes and edits procedures and job aids, and coaches non-writer co-workers.

Organizing Ideas: The Key to Effective Communication

Matthew Spence. 2015. Portland, OR: The Quimby Street Press. [ISBN 978-1-495-98493-8. 198 pages, including index. US$20.00 (softcover).]

Book review in Technical Communication: The Journal of the Society for Technical Communication, Volume 63, Number 4 | November 2016