Writing Technique - General
Writing letters, reports, notes and other communications are important skills for business and personal life. Good letters help to get results, where poor letters fail. People judge others on the quality of their writing, so it's helpful to write well. Here are some simple tips for writing letters and communications of all sorts.
Generally, whatever you are writing, get to the main point, quickly and simply. Avoid lengthy preambles. Don't spend ages setting the scene or explaining the background, etc.
Take a structured approach. Aristotle's Three Modes of Persuasion is 2,300 years old, but the model remains extremely helpful for constructing and conducting all sorts of communications.
If you are selling, promoting, proposing something you must identify the main issue (if selling, the strongest unique perceived benefit) and make that the sole focus. Introducing other points distracts and confuses the reader.
Use language that your reader uses. If you want clues as to what this might be imagine the newspaper they read, and limit your vocabulary to that found in the newspaper.
See Nudge theory to understand how and why people think and decide.
Using the reader's language ideally extends to spelling for US-English or UK-English. It's difficult on this webpage, or other communications designed for mixed audiences, but when possible in your own work acknowledge that US and UK English are slightly different. Notably words which end in IZE in US English can quite properly be spelled ISE in English, for example: organise/organize, specialise/specialize, etc. Similarly many words ending in OUR in UK English are spelled OR in US English, for example favour/favor, humour/humor, colour/color, etc.
Avoid obvious grammatical errors, especially inserting single apostrophes where incorrect, which irritates many people and which is seen by some to indicate a poor education.
Probably the best rule for safe use of apostrophes is to restrict their use simply to possessive (e.g., girl's book, group's aims) and missing letters in words (e.g., I'm, you're, we've).
The following three paragraphs attempt to explain some of the more complex rules for apostrophes, and I'm grateful to David Looker for helping me to bring better clarity to this confusing situation. Language is not a precise science and certain aspects, notably rules governing the use of apostrophes, are open to interpretation.
By way of introduction to apostrophes, here are some examples of common mistakes:
- the team played it's part (should be: the team played its part - its, although possessive, is like his, my, hers, theirs, etc., and does not use the possessive apostrophe)
- its been a long day (should be: it's been a long day - it's is an abbreviation of it has)
- your correct (should be: you're correct - you're is an abbreviation of you are)
- one months notice (should be: one month's notice - the notice is governed by the month, hence the possessive apostrophe)
- the groups' task (should be: the group's task - group is a collective noun and treated as singular not plural)
- the womens' decisions (should be the women's decisions - same as above - women is treated as singular, irrespective of the plural decisions)
The purpose of a single apostrophe is to indicate missing letters, as in I'm happy, or you're correct, and word constructions like don't, won't, wouldn't, can't, we've, etc. Apostrophes are also used to indicate when something belongs to the word (possessive), as in the girl's book. This extends to expressions like a day's work, or a month's delay. The possessive apostrophe moves after the S when there is more than one subject in possession, for example the girls' fathers, or the footballers' wives, or three weeks' notice, but not for collective nouns like the children's toys, the women's husbands, or the group's aims. And take care with the word its, as in the dog wagged its tail, where (as with his and hers) the apostrophe is not used, and should not be confused with it's, meaning it is, which does use the apostrophe according to the missing letters rule. Apostrophes are generally considered optional but are not 'preferred' (which basically means that fewer people will regard the usage as correct) in pluralised abbreviations such as OAPs, and tend not to be used at all in well known abbreviations such as CDs and MPs. Increasingly, apostrophes in common abbreviations such as CD's and MP's are considered by many to be incorrect, and so on balance are best avoided. The use of apostrophes is more likely to be preferred and seen as correct where the abbreviation contains periods, such as M.P.'s or Ph.D.'s, although in general the use of periods and apostrophes in abbreviations is becoming less popular and therefore again is probably best avoided. In single-case communications (all capitals, or no capitals - which is increasingly popular in emails and texts) omitting apostrophes in pluralised abbreviations can cause confusion, so forms such cds or CDS should be avoided if possible, although the 'correct' punctuation in this context is anyone's guess. Grammatical rules change much slower than real life. Other plural abbreviations or shortened words such as photos (photographs), mics (microphones), could technically still be shown as photo's and mic's, reflecting older traditional use of the apostrophe in abbreviated words, but these days this is generally considered to be incorrect. The use of apostrophes in numbers, such as 1980's or over-50's, is also less popular than a generation ago, and whilst optional, apostrophes in numbers are increasingly regarded as incorrect, so the safer preferred forms for the examples shown are 1980s and over-50s. The use of apostrophes is still preferred for pluralising short words which do not generally have a plural form, such as in the statement: there are more x's than y's, or do's and don't's. The last example makes for a particularly confusing form and is another common spoken term that's probably best avoided putting in print or in any sort of formal communication (because even if you get it right there's a good chance that the reader will think it wrong anyway..)
Aside from the safe recommendation above to generally restrict apostrophes to missing letters and possessive words, if in doubt, try to see what rules the reader or the audience uses for such things - in brochures, on websites, etc., and then, unless they are patently daft, match their grammatical preferences accordingly.
Use short sentences. More than fifteen words in a sentence reduces the clarity of the meaning. After drafting your communication, seek out commas and 'and's, and replace with full-stops.
Write as you would speak - but ensure it's grammatically correct. Don't try to be formal. Don't use old-fashioned figures of speech. Avoid 'the undersigned', 'aforementioned', 'ourselves', 'your goodselves', and similar nonsense. You should show that you're living in the same century as the reader.
As to how informal to be, for example writing much like normal every day speech (for example I'd, you'd, we've) bear in mind that some older people, and younger people who have inherited traditional views, could react less favourably to a writing style which they consider to be the product of laziness or poor education. Above all it is important to write in a style that the reader is likely to find agreeable.
Avoid jargon, acronyms, technical terms unless essential.
Don't use capital letters - even for headings. Words formed of capital letters are difficult to read because there are no word-shapes, just blocks of text. (We read quickly by seeing word shapes, not the individual letters.)
Sans serif fonts (like Arial, Tahoma and this one, Helvetica) are modern, and will give a modern image.
Serif fonts (like Garamond, Goudy and this one, Times), are older, and will tend to give a less modern image.
Sans serif fonts take longer to read, so there's a price to pay for being modern. This is because we've all grown up learning to read serif fonts. Serif fonts also have a horizontal flow, which helps readability and reading comfort. (Serif fonts developed before the days of print, when the engraver needed to create a neat exit from each letter.)
Avoid fancy fonts. They may look clever or innovative, but they are more difficult to read, and some are nearly impossible.
Use 10-12 point size for body copy (text). 14-20 point is fine for main headings, bold or normal. Sub-headings 10-12 bold.
Any printed material looks very untidy if you use more than two different fonts and two different point sizes. Generally the fewer the better.
If your organisation stipulates a 'house' font then use it.
If your organisation doesn't then it should do.
Black text on a white background is the easiest colour combination to read. Definitely avoid coloured backgrounds, and black.
Avoid background graphics or pictures behind the text.
Italics are less easy to read. So is heavy bold type.
If you must break any of these font rules, do so only for the heading.
Limit main attention-grabbing headings to no more than fifteen words.
In letters, position your main heading between two-thirds and three-quarters up the page. This is where the eye is naturally drawn first.
Use left-justified text as it's easiest to read.
Avoid fully justified text as it creates uneven word spaces and is more difficult to read.
Remember that effective written communication is enabling the reader to understand your meaning in as few words as possible.
Refer to Aristotle's Three Modes of Persuasion - the three principles are 2,300 years old and remain fundamentally significant and useful in modern communications.
Generally if you can't fit it all onto one side of a standard business sheet of paper, start again.
Whether writing a letter of complaint, introduction, or proposition - you must keep it brief.
If your letter can't be read and understood in less than 20 seconds it has limited chances of success. It used to be 30 - this time limit gets shorter every year.
Think about the purpose of your letter. It will rarely be to resolve something completely. It will more often be to establish a step along the way. So concentrate just on that step.
For example - letters of introduction should not try to sell a product. They should sell the appointment.
Typical structure template for writing a report:
- Title, author, date.
- Introduction and Terms of Reference (or aims/scope for report).
- Executive Summary (1-2 pages maximum) containing main points of evidence, recommendations and outcomes.
- Implications/issues/opportunities/threats, with source-referenced facts and figures evidence.
- Solution/action/decision options with implications/effects/results, including financials and parameters inputs and outputs.
- Recommendations and actions with input and outcomes values and costs, and if necessary return on investment.
- Optional Bibliography and Acknowledgements.
Map out your structure before you begin researching and writing your report.
Ensure the purpose, aims and scope of the report are clearly explained in your terms of reference.
The executive summary should be be very concise, summarising the main recommendations and findings. Provide interpretation of situations and options. Show the important hard facts and figures. Your recommendations should include implications, with values and costs where applicable. Unless yours is a highly complex study, limit the executive summary to less than two sides of standard business paper.
The body of the report should be divided into logical sections. The content must be very concise. Use hard facts and figures, evidence and justification. Use efficient language - big reports with too many words are not impressive. The best reports are simple and quick to read because the writer has properly interpreted the data and developed viable recommendations.
Do not cram lots of detail, diagrams, figures, evidence, references etc., into the main body of the report. Index and attach these references as appendices at the end of the report.
Where you state figures or evidence you must always identify the source.
Show figures in columns. Try to support important figures with a graph.
If it's appropriate to acknowledge contributors then do so in the introduction or a separate section at the end.
If ever you are confronted with the task of writing a report and you are unsure of how to go about it, here are some tips.
It's common to be asked to write reports in business and organisations, for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes reports are required for good reasons - sometimes they are simply a waste of time. Sometimes reports are requested with clear terms of reference and criteria, but mostly they are not. It's common for reports to be requested with only a vague idea given as to what is actually needed - commonly there is no written 'brief' or specification.
The writer then spends days agonizing over what the report should include and look like, how long it should be, whether to include recommendations, whether to attach detailed information, etc. All this confusion is unnecessary and can be avoided by asking some simple questions.
Many people new to report-writing think that it's not the done thing to ask what the report should look like, often for fear of appearing unsure or incapable. But the fact is that before writing reports or business plans of any sort the writer should always first seek clarification of exactly what's required.
Don't assume that the request is reasonable and properly thought-through - in many cases it will not be. If the request for a written report is not perfectly clear, ask for clarification. Experienced people ask and seek clarification all the time - it's perfectly sensible and logical to do so.
Seeing sample reports from other industries and organisations is not always very helpful. Sample reports from completely different situations can be very misleading, aside from which, good sample reports are actually quite difficult to find anyway because most are subject to commercial or other confidentiality. In any event, there are so many different types of reports and report formats that there's no guarantee that an example from elsewhere would be right for your particular situation.
You are often better simply to follow the guidelines above, and avoid wasting time looking for elusive report examples. Trust your own judgement. Creating a sensible structure and building your own report is generally quicker and better than seeking inspiration elsewhere.
Importantly ask your employer or boss or client (whoever has requested the report) for their ideal format and if appropriate ask for examples of what they consider a suitable format for them. It's perfectly reasonable to seek clarification in this - you are not a mind-reader. There's a whole load of mystique around reports and business plans which is rarely dispelled because folk are afraid to ask - so break the cycle of doubt and assumption - ask.
As already explained, when writing anything - especially reports - the shorter the better is normally the case, especially when the audience is senior and strategic management or directors.
In truth most long reports generally don't get read, and what's worse is that some bosses don't have the sense to help the writers see how they could have submitted something far shorter. So the mystique persists.
Everyone - especially people new to report-writing thinks they should know how to do it, and nobody generally puts their hand up and dares to break the taboo by asking "What exactly do you want this report to look like?" In fact many bosses can't write a decent report themselves, which makes them even less likely to offer to explain what's required.
So, when faced with your next vague request to "Write a report..", cut through the crap, as they say, break the taboo, and ask people what they want:
Discuss and agree the report specification with the person requesting it - if they aren't sure themselves, then help them to define the criteria by asking helpful questions, such as -
- Is there a written specification or 'terms of reference' for this report?
- Where did the original request for this report come from and what do you think they expect and need?
- Can we find out more about what is expected from this report?
- How many words or pages?
- Who is this report for and what will they use it for?
- What format do you (or they) prefer?
- Would people actually prefer a PowerPoint presentation of the main points instead of a bloody great big report that no-one will bother to read?
- Do you want recommendations and actions in the report? Or just a conclusion?
- Do you want detail referenced and appended or available on request?
- Is this report really truly necessary? - might there be a better quicker more effective way to give the person asking for it what they actually need, whatever that is?
If you don't know what someone wants a report to be like, or what the report is for, then don't let people kid you into thinking that you should be able to guess.
Ask some helpful questions to agree a sensible report format, length, outcomes, etc., and you'll avoid the agonizing guesswork, and save everyone's time.
Finally - when you yourself next have to ask one of your people, or a supplier, or anyone else for that matter, to "write a report..", think about all of the above carefully and ask yourself the questions that will help you first confirm that a report is actually necessary, and then to define and provide clear and helpful guidelines, or a specification, or 'terms of reference', so that the person having to write the report can fully understand what sort of report is required and why.
Additional tips and templates for writing plans and reports are the business planning section.
See also the section on delegation, which relates strongly to requesting reports.
And the notes about personal brainstorming and note-taking for planning, decision-making, and generally organizing your thoughts.
I am grateful to Stewart Dixon for his help in refining this webpage.
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