Writing skills

message received and understood?

Don’t let the medium be the message!

Writing is one way to get your message across.  But how to make sure that the message your readers / your audience receive is the same as the one you sent?

To ensure your writing is clear, precise, understood and communicates what really counts read the guide below … unless you are writing satire or humour, such as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Caroll or Douglas Adams.

For the rest of us;  you may write or have written one or more of the formats set out below:                                                

  • Business plans (creative and persuasive)
  • Management reports (analytical, clear but written for an audience and a purpose)
  • Briefs – responding to a request for a proposal (RfP) or had a need to craft one.
  • Narrative approaches (scenario plans and other forms of foresight document)
  • Pitches (ideally based on structured format – such as the AnABC from the Stanford Research Institute)
  • Critical, scholarly essays
  • Research papers, dissertations, thesis

Each of these documents have a particular purpose, approach and objective. Some need to be comprehensive in their content and make no assumptions about the knowledge of the readership. Others are for fellow practitioners within a field and can be a little more ‘telegraphic’ with terms, jargon and acronyms drawn from the sector. However, there is no excuse for lack of clarity even for the ‘in-house’ team.  Plus, all of these works should be routed in evidence to support and substantiate the case being made.

You need to..

  • be specific and concise.
  • focus on your reader.
  • make your reader feel something – can they relate to the text?
  • keep your average sentence length at a maximum of 14 words an average of nine words per sentence makes then easier to read.

Consider your audience, the reader

  • write with the reader’s perspective in mind
  • addresses the questions they are likely to have

Checkpoint: what level of knowledge do they have of the topic?

The language

  • write as you speak – use spoken English, i.e. the way you say things normally.
  • avoid a pompous, formal, superior approach – Shakespeare’s style may seem flowery today, but was not out of place in his time.
  • keep it simple!

Checkpoint: would I say this?

The preparation
The steps and principals of a successful, well-structured piece of writing start with good research … the basics covered by any journalist in writing their articles are:

  • what is happening?
  • when did it/is it to happen?
  • how did it/will it happen?
  • who is/was involved/affected?
  • where did it/is it to happen?
  • why it happened/is to happen.

… the content of your thoughts and arguments in a logical order e.g.

  • chronologically (1st, 2nd)
  • deductively (major reason, supporting arguments)
  • comparatively (best, mediocre, poor)

There are many methods to craft a good document.

One of the most well-know is the Pyramid Principle created by Barbara Minto.

The aim of this approach is to improve the logical flow of written documents.
She states that the structure of a good document must obey three rules:

  1. Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideals grouped below them.
  2. Ideas in each grouping must always be at the same kind of idea.
  3. Ideas in each grouping must always be logically ordered.

So, when ordering your ideas: group your thoughts and arguments in layers of information, each layer deeper and more detailed than the one above. Each layer should summarise the one below e.g. the top layer or headings will summarise each section unlike traditional report headings which introduce each section. In this way, if your reader is in a rush, they can read the headings only and will not have to wade through the entire report to get to the point.

Caveat: at the end, your document should not look like a pyramid, just have the logic of one!

The style (a good guide to style has been produced by the Independent Newspaper UK)

What to avoid for an easy read:

  • Jargon – it will not impress, and may just confuse your reader
  • Wordiness – keep your writing short; eliminate repetition, put your paragraphs on a diet; e.g. ‘in order to’ > ‘to’; ‘in the event that’ > ‘if’
  • passive voice – makes your writing vague, denies responsibility and puts a distance between the writer and reader; (unless in legal or scientific writing) use active voice i.e.:
    • passive: meetings are held at 10 am
    • active: we hold meetings at 10 am
  • ‘smothered’ verbs i.e. those hidden under unnecessary words -; it make for a less skimmable read e.g.
    • ‘we will investigate…’ not ‘ we will do an investigation’…
    • ‘we concluded…’ not ‘we reached a conclusion…’
    • please assist…’ not ‘please give assistance to…’

The fog factor

‘Fog’ = the wordiness in which your message gets lost.

The ‘fog’ index represents the approximate years of schooling (from age 5) needed to understand a piece of writing.

To calculate:

  1. pick a 100 word sample of your writing; calculate the average number of words per sentence; treat each separate clause as a sentence; let us call this (a)
  2. count the words of 3 syllables or more (b)
  3. add (a) to (b); multiply by 0.4 to get a fog index

The higher the fog factor, the harder your writing is to read e.g. an index of 6 means your readers have to have 6 years of schooling to understand your prose.

Test your writing, from time to time, to see how much mist is in your meaning (MS Word can do it for you). You can test your language on-line through a number of tools:-https://readabilityformulas.com/freetests/six-readability-formulas.php

The last words
Concluding words are decisive in triggering a desired action; endings (conclusions and recommendations), should create a response:

  • set parameters – allows reader to use their own initiative within your limits, e.g. “we need to come up with fresh ideas that don’t involve additional staff resources”
  • spell out your request – if you want specific action, e.g. “given the situation as I’ve outlined it, we want you to….”
  • use open questions – puts the ball in their court to reply, “how can we use these facts to build response rates?”
  • the polish – ready to send the document? A few points to check:
    • facts – a misspelled name or address distracts from the message, as does poor grammar; if you composed the document on a word-processor, use the spellchecker (and grammar-checker) if available; otherwise a dictionary
    • proofing to pick up on those typos, alignment, typeface inconsistencies, and spacing errors that the average spell checker misses
    • layout – memos and reports are less likely to be read if:
      • there is not enough white space
      • the sentences and paragraphs are too long
      • there are too many points within the paragraphs


Alternatively… it is said that a picture paints a thousand words
But only if you agree on the interpretation and cultural context … so write it down.


Annex – a short guide to format

Academic writing is:-

  • Sophisticated engagement with ideas and concepts
  • Disinterested and objective
  • Oriented towards the illumination of truth (s)
  • Analytical
  • Exploratory
  • Written for academics and other scholars
  • Rigorous
  • Conducts an argument.


Business writing  / report writing is:-

  • Intelligent
  • Ends or objective oriented
  • Practical
  • Written for an audience
  • Often written for audiences where time is a factor
  • Persuasive
  • Decision-oriented
  • Rigorous
  • Makes a case


All writing written for a specific purpose should share elements of critical writing:-

  • Critical writing is analytical, not descriptive
  • It is based in argument rooted in evidence and solid knowledge of the scholarly sources and debates
  • Develops an independent and informed view of others’ findings and conclusions, and argues why they may be accepted or rejected
  • A balanced and objective presentation of why others arguments may be accepted or treated with caution
  • An understanding of limitations and the potential for further investigation
  • Involvement in an academic debate


What could the format actually look like?

The two examples below are indicative of an approach and not proscriptive templates.   

A Research Report will have:-

Title page – the title of your report, your name, the date, academic information (your course and tutor’s name).

Acknowledgements – if you have received help (i.e. from experts, academics, libraries).

Terms of reference (optional) This gives the scope and limitations of your report – your objective in writing and who it is for.

Summary / Abstract – in brief, the most important points of your report: your objectives (if you do not include a terms of reference section), main findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Table of Contents All the sections and sub-sections of your report with page references, plus a list of diagrams or illustrations and appendices.

Introduction Why you are researching the topic, the background and goals of your research, your research methods, plus your conclusion in brief.

Methods / Methodology / Procedure (optional – if not included in the introduction) How you carried out your research, techniques, equipment or procedures you used.

Main body / Discussion (the longest part of your report) Contains an analysis and interpretation of your findings (often linked to current theory or previous research) divided into headings and sub-headings for clarity. You can also include visual information, such as diagrams, illustrations, charts, etc.

Results: (can also go before the main body of the report) The findings of your research (also presented in tables, etc) but without any discussion or interpretation of them.

Conclusion: What you can say about the results – your deductions, and the most important findings from your research.

Recommendations (can also be part of the conclusion section) Number these if you have more than one.

Appendices: Extra information which is too long for the main body of your report, such as tables, questionnaires, etc.

References All the sources you cited in your report.

Bibliography (optional and questionable the value it brings to the text) Books, journals, etc which you read or used during your research.

Glossary (optional) Technical or jargon words which your reader might not understand.

Acronyms (at the start of the work). Even if you include this section always use the full name of the entity the first time you refer to it in your text.

A business report, might have:-

Title page: The report title, your name, the date, the name of the person commissioning the report, the objective of the report.

Management / Executive Summary: You can give this to people instead of the whole report. It is often less than one page and contains the main information – the summary, conclusions and recommendations.

Table of Contents: For longer reports, including sections and page references.

Introduction: The background of the report, what is included, methods and procedures for getting the information, acknowledgements of help.

Main Body / Discussion: This is the longest part of your report, including all the details organised into headings and sub-headings. For example, a description of the current situation / problems.

Summary and Conclusions (can also go before the main body): Summarise the reason for your report, and your conclusions, such as the potential solutions to a problem.

Recommendations (can also go before the main body): Identify your preferred course of action. Number your recommendations if you have more than one.

Appendices: Any extra information, such as illustrations, questionnaires used in preparing the report, or a bibliography.

References (optional)

As writer you should understand and be clear on:-

  • Your style and tone
  • how to write clear and concise documents
  • the importance of structure and narrative – you are still telling a story.
  • basic grammar and punctuation
  • how to avoid common writing mistakes
  • how to edit your work
  • the need to have your work proofread.

Put together your own format / guidelines for word documents or PowerPoint, create your own house style.

What you should avoid like the plague is cliché.