While capering about writing light-heartedly for social media, blogs, etc. it’s easy to forget than we often have to buckle down and write formally for a report, business letter or other serious document. Thankfully nowadays such writing does not have to drive readers to narcolepsy, but can actually be simple and efficient, according to UK-based business expert Penny Dent from IndePenDent Inspiration. How? Here’s Penny …
When we are writing something formal and structured, such as a document, report, or a letter, it is even more vital to be clear and get it right. This is no casual conversation, this is something that will make a difference. I spent twenty years producing formal documents that made a difference to children’s lives, so I know how important it is to follow a few simple rules in order to say what is needed.
7 key tips to writing good formal documents, reports, letters and more
Structure – keep it simple. What is the main objective of what you want to say? Don’t be tempted to muddy the waters by expanding on your message in too much detail or digressing into other areas. The more you keep it short and focused, the more likely you are to have your message heard and understood. If you are writing at length, consider including an introduction and conclusion; “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”
Layout – tempt the reader onwards. I am a great believer in using the layout of what you say to ensure that the message is read. So no long paragraphs, with multiple clauses, but not too many short, snappy sentences either. Avoid repetition, contractions and jargon. Keep sentences all the same length, wherever possible. Do the same with paragraphs; I really dislike long paragraphs and I would never put a single sentence as a paragraph in a formal piece of writing, unless I wanted to create real emphasis.
Break it up – I use punctuation and paragraphs to provide the basic structure, but if I am writing any length, I use other formatting to help invite the reader onwards. Bullet points are usually preferable to numbering in my view, as they highlight individual points without putting these in any particular order. Sub-headings are useful, even when contained within the text, as I have done here.
Language – of course the words we use are vital in communicating our message. Using complex or unusual vocabulary is counter-productive unless we are aiming to deliberately confuse or mislead our reader. Or if you want to impress them with what a bombast you are! Jargon is a definite no-no, as this may not be understood by those outside the sphere of its use. Writing formal documents on children with special educational needs for many years, I used to take on writers with no real knowledge of the field, so that they would not be tempted to use the jargon; I would tell them “if in doubt, leave it out.”
Grammar – when we are writing something more formal, we do not generally use the same grammatical structures we use when talking. This has become harder to define and maintain now that so much of what we write is casual and written in a conversational tone, such as in emails, texts and blogs. However, I think it is still useful to be correct when writing, as much to avoid silly mistakes as anything else. Mistakes or chatty grammar distract from the message we are trying to convey, which will make it lose its impact.
Tense – I try to write in the present tense as much as possible. Even when you are writing formally, this has more impact than writing in the past. Narration has traditionally been written in the past tense, or if you are writing a report and explaining what has happened, this will also be described as having happened. If you are explaining how to do something (as I am here) then I would keep it in the now as much as possible. These days books are often written in the present tense, making them more exciting and relevant.
Active or passive voice – using the passive voice used to be standard for any formal writing; “the words used are vital in communicating the message.” Nowadays we are much more personal and direct in what we say, so that even formal writing is related to our own experiences and views. This makes it easier to understand and follow. However, there is a difference between writing in the active voice “I really dislike long paragraphs and I would never put a single sentence as a paragraph in a formal piece of writing” and being too chatty “I hate long, boring bits of writing and wouldn’t put a sentence on its own”.
Overall, whatever the purpose of the writing, my number one tip is to keep it as short and simple as possible. People are lazy! So no matter how interesting your writing, they will not read it all carefully or thoroughly, unless it is riveting. As with any writing, set it down, walk away and then come back to check it, reducing the number of words and simplifying the message. Less is more.
Penny Dent is a dynamic entrepreneur who thrives on the challenge of supporting others, particularly women, in growing and improving their businesses. CEO of a company she started 20 years ago and then sold handsomely, she really has been there, done that – and now delights in doing that for her clients. Find out more on Penny’s website, here.
Photo of Penny by Kate Everall Photography.