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Guide to the OET Writing Sub-test: Organisation and Layout

Guide to writing organisation and layoutThe fifth criterion used by assessors to score your Writing performance is Organisation and Layout. It covers how you order your letter and helps assessors decide whether your structure makes it easier or harder for the reader to understand.

In this guide you will:

  • Learn why organisation and layout is important
  • Learn how to order information in your letter
  • Learn how to group information together into paragraphs

Putting your information in place

Once you have decided the information to include and not include from the case notes, you now need to decide in what order you will present the information.

As each writing task and its case notes are different, the situation you are describing and the requests you are making are not the same. As a result, each letter will be structured slightly differently.

One way to think about your letter is that it is the patient’s story. We often tell the patient’s story when handing over a patient to colleagues at a shift change or over the phone when referring the patient to a specialist.

We adjust the order of the information in the story depending on who we are telling it to. We do this because we want to grab their attention and keep them engaged while we present the rest of the information. This is what you need to do with your letter.

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. If you received this letter, which information would you want first, second and so on.

Let’s go through some different ways you can put the letter together depending on the patient’s situation.

Chronologically

In some situations, the clearest way to organise the letter is around time. You start at the beginning and continue up to the present day, for example:

Reader: Endocrinologist
Paragraph one: Mrs Sharma initially presented on 29/12/18…
Paragraph two: A pathology report received on 05/01/2019…
Paragraph three: On 12/01/19…

Mrs Sharma’s situation is quite routine to the reader. The writer uses dates at the start of each paragraph to separate the details of her visits. By doing this, the information is formed into a timeline that is clear to the reader and easy to follow.

If the case notes are describing an emergency situation, what happened six months ago at the initial visit becomes much less important to the reader. Instead, they are interested in what has just happened, what treatment has been provided and details of the patient’s current situation.

Once they have this in mind, they can then scan through the rest of the letter to see if the history presents any additional insight.

Thematically

Another way to organise a letter is by putting the most important information first. You would organise the letter this way if there are a number of different aspects to the patient’s current situation. For example, the patient’s living and family situation, co-morbidities etc.

In these situations, presenting the information thematically will be most appropriate to the reader. Let’s take a look at an example.

Reader:  Doctor
Paragraph One: Since October 2018, Mr Dunbar has shown signs of diabetic neuropathy… and has not been compliant with his medication regimen…
Paragraph Two: In June 2018, he had a myocardial infarction…His hypertension is controlled by Ramipril.

In this letter, there is a timeline of the patient’s history like the last example because it remains important for the reader to understand what happened and when. However, the information is laid out thematically rather than chronologically.

The first paragraph covers the patient’s diabetes and non-compliance with both his medication, as per the purpose of the letter (write a letter outlining the patient’s history and requesting ongoing monitoring). The second paragraph focuses on related medical events and co-morbidities which are relevant background detail for the reader but of less importance.

In other letters, thematic paragraphs could focus on the patient’s social history, previous advice and education they have received, relevant family history and the impact this has on how the patient feels about their condition etc.

Review your paragraphs…

There is no limit to the paragraphs you include. Use as many as are necessary to clearly communicate the information to the reader. Some situations may need less and some may need more.

If you find you have a very long paragraph in your letter, use the few minutes at the end to:

  • Make sure it is only covering one time period or one theme
  • Decide if you should break the paragraph into two.

…and the order of your sentences

It’s not just about structuring the paragraphs in the clearest order for the reader. You also want to make sure that the important details don’t get hidden within the paragraph. Apply the same approach to the order of your sentences. The sentence containing the most important information for that paragraph comes first, the next most important sentence comes in second and so on.

Making the right choice about which order to include the information is what is being assessed in this criterion. Even if you have included all of the information the reader needs, but not in the order they would wish it, then you will not have demonstrated this criterion correctly.