Why good writing skills matter for ‘action jobs’

medium_6777931751We all know that good writing skills are important for business. But what about for “action jobs” like the police, armed forces, train drivers, paramedics, etc.? Do people who rescue victims from burning buildings also need to write well? I asked Richard McMunn, who runs a recruitment business specializing in this type of career, to share his views… [Read more…]

How to avoid waffle when writing a business report

A guest post by Charlotte Mannion

A key reason why reports often end up in the waste bin or discarded in a forgotten filing cabinet is that they are simply unreadable.

Formal words

For reasons best known to themselves some writers think it sounds more important or formal if they use big words instead of everyday language.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Why should a report be harder to read and subsequently to understand simply because it is labelled a ‘Report’?

When you are preparing a report remind yourself who you are writing for and how much you want your report to be read and understood, may be even to be persuasive.   Avoid the overdone statements or over long words too often found in hard to follow reports.

Excessive words

You also need to avoid the use of excessive words in your report.  Part of your editing process should be to remove excess words.  For example is there anything other than a ‘terrible’ disaster; an ‘armed’ gunman; ‘multiple’ choice ‘forward’ planning?  This often happens because you want to make your points too well.  Question every word and remove repetitions and excessive emphasis.

Management jargon

Then there is the dreaded ‘management speak’ What do we really mean by forward planning, or better, proactive forward planning which was in a document sent to me by a client!  I expect you have seen examples like ‘cutting edge’, ‘grassroots level’, ‘high visibility’ and ‘fundamentally flawed’.  I won’t go on.   And let’s stop ‘engaging’ with people and start talking, or involving or consulting with them instead?

Well worn expressions

Clichés are lazy.  Using others’ well used expressions in your report reduces trust in what you have to say.  Expressions like ‘at the end of the day’, ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘tip of the iceberg’, ‘in this day and age’ and ‘to all intents and purposes’ are all meaningless and turn your carefully crafted report into a woolly and often impenetrable diatribe.  Mixed metaphors particularly when written in ‘management speak’ will lose you your audience too.

The right word for the occasion

As you can see our wonderful language can be challenging.  The most difficult part is probably the fact that we have a huge number of words which sound the same but mean different things.  Words such as complimentary and complementary and principle and principal which are pronounced in exactly the same way can lead to misunderstandings if the wrong word is selected in your report.

The aim should always be for simplicity.  A simple report in simple language is far more effective than one stuffed full of outdated words and ideas.

Charlotte Mannion www.quicklearn.org.uk   Author of the Useful Guide to Report Writing


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How to write reports that get read, part 2

Mention to most business people that they need to write a report and you’re likely to hear a groan … “oh, what’s the point, it’s so boring and no-one ever reads the damned things anyway…” But reports don’t have to be boring, and writing them doesn’t have to be, either. In this first of two articles, we look at the basic issues you need to consider, and how to set up a structure that works…(if you haven’t read part 1, click here.)

The executive summary: just like an abstract

Depending on the nature of your report you may be expected to include an executive summary, or at least an introduction that captures the key points of your information. This is much like the “abstracts” used in medical and other reports which encapsulate the main points, so giving the reader the key issues as quickly as possible. Write this after you’ve done the body of the report, not before. Use your list of headings as a guide.

Keep strictly to the facts – this is still part of the report, not your interpretation of it. Strip each sentence down to bare bones with minimal adjectives and adverbs. Use short words and sentences.

Don’t just get to the point – start with it and stick to it.

What you think: even if they want to know, keep it separate

If part of your remit is to comment on the report and/or its conclusions, keep this separate from the main body of information. (Blocked off in a box or under a clearly separated heading will do.)

Naturally as you’re professional you will be as objective as possible. But if you do feel strongly one way or another, ensure that your argument is put as reasonably as possible without going on for pages and pages.

Remember, brief is beautiful, although it’s harder to write briefly (and include all the important points) than it is to produce words in abundance.

Pictures are fine but don’t replace relevant words

Graphs and charts are great to illustrate important issues and like the man said, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” However ensure that those you use are of a level of complexity that will be understood by the least topic-literate of your readers. There’s nothing more irritating than a graph that takes you 20 minutes to decipher.

It’s not so much a case that readers are too stupid to understand a complex graph, as it is that they don’t want to spend too much time working it out. The easier/quicker you make it for readers to understand and assimilate your information, the more successful your report.

Try, also, to keep graphs and charts physically adjacent to the text that talks about the same thing. As before, there’s nothing more irritating for the reader if they have to keep flipping from front to back of a document, whether online or paper-based. (When in doubt, think of someone reading your report on that crowded commuter train.)

Keep it simple and dump any padding

Still on that topic, try to avoid including too many diverse elements in your report, no matter how long and involved it is.

If you do need to include appendices and various bits of background material, research statistics, etc., make sure they’re neatly labeled and contained at the back of your document.

As I suggested earlier, don’t ask readers to skip back and forth, directing them with asterisks and other reference directing symbols.

If you’re writing a medical report or paper then you’re obliged to include these when quoting references from other papers, but please keep even these to a minimum. They’re very distracting and can break your reader’s concentration.

Looks matter – and can help readers absorb information

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but people do. Like it or not. According to most image consultants, when you walk into a meeting 55% of your first impression of someone is reflected exclusively in the way they’re dressed.  Documents fall into the same hole.

So how your document looks goes a long way to creating the right impression of your work, and of you.

Obviously if a report is due to go outside your organization and particularly to clients or customers, you will be careful to ensure it’s polished and clearly branded with your corporate identity and all that.

However, how the hard copy of an internal report looks is important, too, although your Head of Finance might have apoplexy if you bind it in expensive glossy card. Be sensible with the internal variety – neat, understated, groomed looks don’t have to cost much but they “say” a lot about the value of your report (and you.)

Make sure all your writing gets read and acted on:

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

How to write reports that get read, part 1

Mention to most business people that they need to write a report and you’re likely to hear a groan … “oh, what’s the point, it’s so boring and no-one ever reads the damned things anyway…” But reports don’t have to be boring, and writing them doesn’t have to be, either. In this first of two articles, we look at the basic issues you need to consider, and how to set up a structure that works…

There is one key difference between reports and most other forms of business writing, and we get a hint of that in the word, “report.” Whereas with many other forms of written comms you can be a little creative and put your own slant on your words, in a report you must not. Not in theory, anyway.

In a report, you’re supposed to report – not embellish, embroider, influence, etc. Just the facts and nothing but the facts.

This does not, however, mean that reports need to be dull and boring. It does, however, mean that you can’t make the content more interesting than it really is. Impossible? No, it just takes some good organization and clear writing.

Before we go any further, there are numerous books and training courses on the market that teach you the formalities and practicalities of report writing. Some are more long-winded than others. Most of them are good.

Here I can’t do what other writers do in a full-length book, so if you need to write reports a lot, I recommend that you buy one or two of the most popular books and study them. What I’m doing here then, is to highlight the points I think are most important to help you make your reports more readable, and the information in them come across more vividly.

If you work in a larger organization, there will probably be set formats for reports, at least for the internal variety. Whether you like them or not you’re normally obliged to stick to them. However the way you roll out and write your content is still up to you.

So what are the key points to focus on?

Keep focused on the reader, as well as the report

Don’t allow yourself to fall into “businessese” jargon and phrasing no matter how much you or other people may feel it’s more appropriate. It isn’t. Use language and tone of voice that your key readers will feel comfortable with.

If you don’t know what they feel comfortable with, find out. It’s well worth taking the trouble, because it will make the report much more enjoyable for them to read – a good reflection on you.

If your report is to be read by a wide variety of different audiences, focus your language on the most important groups. Ensure that less topic-literate readers are catered for by using discreet explanations of technical terms or perhaps a short glossary of terms as an appendix within the report.

Create a logical structure

Start by writing yourself out a list of headings which start at the beginning and finish with the conclusions of your information.

If you must include a lot of background information before you get into the “meat” of the information, section it off clearly with headings that say that it’s background (“Research Project Objectives,” “Research Methods Used To Collate Information,” “Personnel Involved In Questionnaire,” etc.) so those who know it all already can skip straight to the important stuff.

Make sure your headings “tell the story” so someone glancing through those alone will get the basic messages. (You’ll find that busy executives will thank you for doing this, especially when they have 16 other, similar reports to read in a crowded commuter train on the way into a meeting to discuss all of them.) Then fill in the details under each heading as concisely as you can.

Click link to read Part 2 of this article…

Make sure all your writing gets read and acted on:

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Some smart, short ways to write successful long documents

Although perhaps not as terrifying as the thought of writing a whole book, the prospect of writing a detailed report, lengthy proposals, a white paper, a business plan or other similar long writing project can be pretty daunting. Many people feel very nervous about writing anything longer than a page or two, but provided you have plenty to write about, ironically it’s often easier to write at length than it is to condense information into a short piece.

Don’t try to rush the planning stage and don’t rush into writing the first page. Carry a notebook around with you and scribble ideas, reminders and any other inspiration you get while doing the chores or shopping for groceries. Play around with spider maps or PC based mind-mapping programs or whatever works best for you. The time spent will repay itself many times over.

Even if you know your subject matter and your audience backwards, it pays to spend some time getting your information and your thinking together informally, before you write anything much. Make sure you have assembled all the necessary research and background material and then be pretty tough with it, only selecting that which is completely relevant.

As always, decide from the beginning what it is you want to achieve with this document (not merely what you want to say) and keep that in mind as your key goal.

It helps enormously to work to a closely defined structure. In fact I would say that’s essential. The more detailed your structure the easier it will be to write the document. Spend a good chunk of time planning it and ensuring that your running order makes sense. Subdivide sections down into bullet point structures of their own and flesh those out as far as you can.

Regardless of your document ’s length, structure is important. If you need inspiration, go back to what you want to achieve with the document – then break that down into stages.

Then, flesh out each stage with bullet points of the information that belongs there. Number sections of printed research material to match the numbering on your structure, so it’s easy to find when you come to incorporate it. Cut and paste relevant research text into the corresponding place in your draft document on screen.

With each element that you add, keep refining the overall structure of each section of your document and making sure it runs in logical order. Add notes as you think of them, refine paragraphs you’ve jotted down earlier.

Now you need to take the plunge and start writing prose. Because you have mapped out the content of your document so carefully and thoroughly, you’ll find that some it has already started to write itself. Your job then becomes one of linking and smoothing, rather than having to think up stuff from scratch. This method doesn’t remove the fear of writing altogether (if you’re that way inclined) but it certainly makes it a lot easier.

And when you’ve finished your first draft, try if you can to take a break from it. Even a five-minute walk or a trip to the water cooler is better than nothing. No matter how happy you have felt with your text before the break, I can guarantee that when you look at your work afresh you’ll find things you want to improve on. This gets you into editing mode – almost as important as the writing itself.

Take your time over your editing process. And most important of all, be hard on yourself. Put yourself firmly in the shoes of a potential reader and ask yourself if – in this role – you would a) understand everything and b) find it interesting. If the answer is no to either then rewrite the section concerned until it is a) understandable and b) interesting.

A third and final criterion you need to apply to a business document is that it must c) achieve its objectives. Really, you should ensure that every sentence in some way contributes to your ultimate goal, and be very strict about deleting material that doesn’t earn its keep. Whether it’s a 100 word email or a 100,000 word book, no reader wants to feel that his or her time is being wasted on waffle.

And finally, don’t over-edit. Sharpen up your text until you’re happy with it, and by all means show it to a colleague or friend to get an independent opinion. But if you’re too enthusiastic with the pruning shears – and/or you let too many people dictate changes and edits – your document will lose its momentum and personality. As any author will tell you, you’ll always find something to tweak or rewrite, no matter how much editing you do. So you just have to be realistic and decide “that’s it, it’s OK now” and hit the send or print button.

Any questions or comments? Please share them here!

Now, let’s get your  long document written perfectly…

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published