Unstructured vs Non-structured: Seeing With the Third Eye

My wife Kathy is a first grade teacher. Working from my office at home, she often catches up on email about situations at her school. While doing her email recently, she asked me about the difference between “unstructured” and “nonstructured,” which her email text editor had indicated was misspelled. The latter word was missing a hyphen, of course, and seems to far less used, but the bigger issue was which was the right word to use in her context, which was discussing lack of supervision in a hallway.

As technical and professional writers, we sometimes work with structured editors in unstructured mode. As I explained it to Kathy, the appropriate usage seems to depend on whether structuring ability was available and could be turned off (as in “unstructured FrameMaker”), or whether  structure was ever there to begin with.

I suspect that most users of structured editors can navigate the proper use of these terms in their writing and discourse without having to think too arduously about the intent. But the distinction might not be as apparent for writers unfamiliar with structured writing. I’ve been in the structured writing world for so long, I can no longer see the world as I did before my original “aha” moment with structured writing. Perhaps it is like the denizens of 2-D Flatland being unable to perceive anything with height in their plano universe.

I learned programming using BASIC back when the distinctions were first being made about unstructured (spaghetti) vs structured (procedural) program writing approaches.
Then I learned structured programming in Pascal and never looked back on the world of unstructured programming as I had known it.

The comparison to Flatland holds, though. If all you know of the world is a 2D universe of length by width, the concept of height would make no sense until you learned to visualize the world from two viewpoints (stereo vision), not just one. Writing (or explaining) with empathy for the reader involves understanding the perceptual roadblocks that keep the reader from seeing what is so obviously clear to you from the other side of that roadblock, whatever it is. It is like using a third eye to better understand the things that may have escaped our notice under more ordinary circumstances. Our world leaders ought to pay attention to the Flatland lesson!

What situations can you think of, whether in writing, programming, or engineering, where the difference between unstructured and non-structured is meaningful?


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One Response to Unstructured vs Non-structured: Seeing With the Third Eye

  1. Mark Lewis says:

    Excellent points. I remember my Aha moment in programming. I was learning object oriented design. In general, you design data models and you design them to be responsible for themselves. Other objects can read the value of the data, but can’t write or change the values in the data object unless permission is given through the use of “write” functions. This protects the data and controls what is written. Data modes are designed based on the idea of inheritance and reusable code. Reusable code and reusable object designs. Sounds similar to structured authoring doesn’t it. It is “similar”. So my background in programming caused me to have my Aha moment with structured authoring faster than normal. That said, poor planning and design programming (even object oriented) can result in spaghetti code that is hard to maintain and update. Similarly, poor planning in structured authoring can have similar results. If you conref and filter your content at a variety of levels with no plan or strategy in place, you will create spaghetti content. “I need to change this one paragraph. I wonder where I’ve reused it. Oh no. I’ve created a house of cards.” A nightmare you can avoid. If you are not familiar with methodologies for content strategy, I strongly urge you to learn and get your own Aha moment. Check out Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy 2ed.

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