How to Sort the Main Ideas of Your Document

29 April 2010


Word count: 600

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes


   Comic by inkygirl


Do you sometimes wonder where to begin when writing a document?

You have so much information to sort through, that it’s tough getting it all in order.


The joys of sorting

I’ve been sorting through stuff lately. This isn’t something I would normally choose to do, but my husband and I have decided to sell our house within the next couple of years and move into a smaller flat. That means we have to get rid of lots of stuff.


One great thing about sorting is that I’m discovering all kind of things that I’d forgotten I had. Some of it is trash, of course. But there are some real treasures, too.


The UNO ‘treasure’

One of the treasures I’ve found among the reams of paper in my office is an organising tool called UNO (UNiversal Organizer). The UNO is a simple chart a university professor designed to help his students organise and draft research papers. It’s also a great tool for business writers.


The thing I really like about the UNO is that it combines the freedom of a mindmap with the structure of an outline. This is especially useful if you have to write a long document but you don’t know how to get started.


The chart is made up of concentric circles divided into sections, the way you would cut pieces of a pie--kind of like this:

How to use the UNO

1.) In the center of the UNO, write your main topic (or title or purpose statement).  

2.) In the next ring going out, list each key point related to the main topic – one point per section.

      Note: write only words or phrases – NOT full sentences.

3.) Add more sections if you need them for all the key points.

4.) In the next ring out, list sub-points next to each key point.

5.) In the outer ring, add supporting details next to sub-points.

6.) Add more rings if you need them.

7.) Go section-by-section, ring-by-ring, until you’ve sorted all the bits of information.

8.) Take a look at the sections and rings to check for

--missing information/details

--repeated information/details

--information in the wrong ring or section

9.) Add anything that’s missing, remove details that you’ve repeated and move information around as necessary.

Suggestion: Write bits of information on post-it notes so they’re easier to move around on the UNO.


Drafting your document

When you’ve finished sorting details, use your UNO as an ‘outline’ to draft the document.


As you write, use a highlighter to mark out each point on the UNO as you finish writing it. That way, you can keep track of your progress.


Warning about the UNO

Despite the word ‘organizer’ in its name, the UNO doesn’t actually help you organise a complete document – because overall conclusions (and recommendations, if relevant) don’t logically fit in its two-dimensional layout. For that, you’d need a three-dimensional sphere, where all the sections come back together on the bottom of the ball.


But it’s still a useful tool to help you get started sorting out ideas into different categories or sections of a document—and to remove information that’s not relevant to the document.


Using the UNO

You can use the UNO for many things besides writing – taking notes from a book, preparing a presentation or planning a project or event. It could be a life-saver if you have to prepare a speech at very short notice.


Want the UNO template?

Want to download the UNO template and some sample outlines?  Go here.


Do you have other tools like this?

Share them with us in the comments or email them to me. Thanks!

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