On the off-chance that “Write better documents at work” was one of your New Year’s resolutions… first, you have my deepest sympathies. Second, below are a few ideas that I believe will make your professional documents clearer and more powerful.
This list is not complete, of course. There are literally thousands of things you can and should do to improve the clarity and quality of your writing – proofread, use smaller words, write shorter paragraphs, ask a trusted colleague to review your work, etc. And even that list would not be complete.
But if you’re looking for just a few easy-to-try ideas to help you write better memos, reports and emails, let me suggest the following.
1. Write for the busiest reader you can imagine.
Think of a typical document you have to read at work (like an agenda for an upcoming meeting). Do you print it out, grab a cup of coffee, put your feet on your desk and slowly read every word? Probably not. More likely, you open the document while you’re already engaged in a few other tasks, scan it in a few seconds and quickly determine what if anything you need to do with it.
Your readers do the same thing.
When you write, imagine the colleagues reading your document will be extremely busy and easily distracted. The moment they perceive your document is wasting even a few seconds of their time, they’ll move on to another task. So make every word count. That means…
- Start with the summary.
- Don’t waste words.
- Make your work easy to scan for your key points or requests – by using lists, subheads and bullets.
2. Anticipate reader questions or objections, and address them.
Writing is more similar to conversation than we realize. You write, and as I read I respond in my head (or out loud to co-workers) to your arguments. If you make a claim or suggestion that I object to, and your document does not even acknowledge that my position exists, I am much less likely to trust your ideas or your judgment – or even to continue reading.
If you make a controversial argument or suggestion (“We should increase the frequency of our conference task-force meetings to twice a week”), acknowledge the other side – respectfully. Then explain why your argument is valid. (“I know we are all busy and under pressure with other projects, but the conference is only two months away and I believe we should spend more than an hour a week as a team – at least for a few weeks.”)
That might not convince your readers of your position, but at least they will know that you understand you are asking for a lot from them. That often goes a long way.
Similarly, if you include a statistic, cite the source and show the reader where and how to verify it. Remember, your document opens a conversation – and the last thing you want when you use a statistic to make your argument is your reader thinking (or saying to a colleague), “Oh, really? And where’d you get that number?”
3. Get organized before you begin writing.
Powerful document writing is not primarily a matter of vocabulary, creativity or even raw writing ability. It’s largely a function of organization.
The best documents are the most organized: They create a clear path for the reader to follow, and they deliver information in a logical order, moving smoothly from point to point.
My tip’s title is actually misnamed: Getting organized is very much a part of the writing process. What I mean is, before you begin actually writing your prose, it’s a good idea to sketch out all of the main points you want your document to communicate and in what order it makes the most sense to present them.
Say your document is a summary for your supervisor of your recent meeting on a joint-agency initiative you’ve been assigned to. Rather than simply starting to type your first sentence, first think through the main points you need to cover and jot them down on the page.
Maybe your document’s flow will be the following:
- Summary of joint-agency initiative’s main objective, and my specific responsibilities.
- List of initiative’s individual goals, with details on how to accomplish each.
- List of my responsibilities, with deadlines and other details.
- List of resources I will need.
Of course, writing is a fluid process. As you begin filling in these sections, you’ll realize that you need additional lists, or that you can combine lists, or that the order of your document should change.
The key point to remember is that before you begin typing up the first words of your document – where you can easily become lost in the details – you want to have some sense of how to organize the entire document to most smoothly communicate all of your ideas to your reader.
To your writing in 2012!