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How to Structure Writing: Use the Chinese-Chef Approach

In school, we were taught to write sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, and to package that writing into a neat narrative.  Maybe our teachers thought we would all grow up to be journalists or authors.   I don’t know about you, but the dreams of hiding out in a rustic mountain cabin, sipping scotch, and laying down eloquent words onto the pages of my next great novel ended a while ago.  So instead, like many others, I chose a different route: an exciting, fascinating career as—you guessed it—a businessman.

Although the mountains are nowhere in sight, my view is of a driveway, and my workspace was built not from logs but concrete, I still spend significant time typing emails and documents on my computer.  Did you know that a conservative estimate shows the average employee in the average industry writing 30 percent of his or her day?  Include me as average on all counts.  Breaking that number out equates to being firmly planted in a seat typing away for a day and a half each week, ten days a month, and 120 days per year.

The question is, what is most effective when it comes to all this business writing? In terms of structure, it’s certainly not writing lengthy sentences in block-style paragraphs, as with what I’ve used to this point.  A more effective structure is closer to what follows.

General’s Chicken, Please


For effective business writing, lose the long-winded, overly wordy paragraphs.  In fact, you may drop many paragraphs altogether.  Instead, convert them to lists.  Why? Lists accomplish the following:

  • Increase accessibility of your information
  • Decrease your need to craft sentences that flow together
  • Improve your audience’s retention of your ideas

Lists also help present content to your audience in small chunks.  Just as the chef in a Chinese restaurant chops up your meats and veggies for you, you need to chop up your content into bite-sized, easily digestible pieces for the audience.

Additional techniques for slicing and dicing writing include the following:

  • Using headings and sub-headings
  • Adding plenty of white space
  • Moving data into tables and charts
  • Using visuals
  • Limiting paragraph length to eight lines
  • Limiting sentence length to two and a half lines (average of 17 words)
This ain’t Tom Clancy


We read books, newspapers, and magazines because we want to.  We read business documents because we have to.

Structuring business content with the techniques above helps our audience scan, not read, our documents.   This greatly helps those busy businesspeople who receive 30-40 emails and a tall stack of reports each day.  Save them the burden of burrowing through all that text by structuring your document so that the most important actions or information leap off the page.

To fulfill your artistic need for crafting beautiful, fluid prose, get started on that novel.  Otherwise, use the Chinese-chef approach to writing.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Great article, and the perfect title! A usability expert, who consults on web page content optimization, once told me that a visitor is most likely to only read the first four bullet points in a list. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it makes sense due to our short attention spans on the internet.

    I love lists, and I completely agree with your reasons why they should be used in place of long paragraphs.

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