Writing for Business

by Steve Roche

Writing reports and proposals

The purpose of a report is to inform, that of a proposal is to influence. Though this has an effect on writing style, and on what you might include, the structure and overall documents are quite similar. A proposal could be considered as a special kind of report.

Checklist for reports (before starting)

  • What is the purpose of the report? Does it have clear objectives and scope?
  • Who is going to use the report? What are their needs?
  • What is expected to change as a result of the report? Could it be achieved in another way, thereby removing the need for the report?
  • Am I the right person to be doing this work?
  • Has the appropriate size been defined?
  • Will there be early reviews of skeleton and draft documents?
  • Will it need copy-editing or proof reading?
  • How is it to be presented? Bound, stapled, emailed?

Structure

Most organisations have their own preferences as to how reports are structured. Many even have templates for standard reports or documents. Use these, but remember not to let a template do your thinking for you.

Find examples of reports others have done. Ask around and find out which ones were well received by your target audience, and why.

State at the beginning what the report contains. Depending on length, this may be a short paragraph or a full management summary. It should summarise and encapsulate the main ideas and conclusions. This allows readers to decide whether to invest time in reading the rest of the content.

If you are using detailed supporting information (facts and figures, graphs, data, illustrations, references), separate it from the main body. Use Appendices, or a Resources section, so that the people who need the information know where to find it.

Get the structure right first, by producing a skeleton report with main headings and sub-headings. Once this is agreed, it is relatively easy to complete the content.

Be clear about your audience – an internal report for your colleagues will be structured differently from a report to be seen by customers, or for external publication.

A subject requires division into topics, each of which should be dealt with in a paragraph. The object of this is to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached. Begin each paragraph with a sentence that suggests the topic or helps the transition.

Layout

Break up the pages to make them visually appealing.

  • Use boxes, tables and diagrams.
  • Use varied fonts, headings, bold, emphasis, italics, colours (but be consistent, and don’t overdo it).
  • Use bullet points (much easier to scan and absorb than blocks of text).
  • Keep it uncluttered, with plenty of white space and not too much information per page.
  • Save time by setting up default styles in your software.

Language

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.

Confucius

Keep the text lively and interesting:

  • use simple and informal language,
  • address the reader directly,
  • vary sentence and paragraph length,
  • use plenty of short sentences,
  • use active rather than passive language,
  • avoid footnotes and long lists of references.

Use short phrases – why put ‘attached herewith’ when ‘attached’ says it all?

  • ‘Now’ not ‘at this moment in time’
  • ‘To’ rather than ‘in order to’
  • ‘If’ rather than ‘should the situation arise that’
  • ‘Because’ not ‘due to the fact that’

Use short words: why write presupposes instead of means, or elucidate when you can explain?

I never write the word metropolis when I get paid the same for writing the word city.

Mark Twain

Examples of simple, direct and active language:

  • It is necessary that a report be submitted on a monthly basis...

You must submit a monthly report...

  • With reference to your previous correspondence, it is my duty to inform you...

Thank you for your letter. I now have to tell you...

  • Further information can be obtained by contacting the undersigned...

If you want to know more, ring us on this number...

Jargon often describes a subset of language that is known and accepted by a specific user group. If you are writing for that group, it is often sensible and appropriate to use it.

Explain abbreviations and initials. It is conventional to write a phrase in full the first time it is used, with the acronym in brackets afterwards, such as Three Letter Acronyms (TLA), for example.

Include specialist and technical terms in a Glossary.

Avoid meaningless management-speak, as in the Buzzword Generator.

You may have seen different versions of this generator in business. In the example below, think of a three-digit number at random and take the corresponding word from each column. So 601 gives you the buzz-phrase ‘optimal management flexibility’, and so on.

    Column 1 Column 2 Column 3
  0 integrated management options
  1 overall organisational flexibility
  2 systematised monitored capability
  3 parallel reciprocal mobility
  4 functional digital programming
  5 responsive logisitical concept
  6 optimal transitional time-phase
  7 synchronised incremental projection
  8 compatible third-generation hardware
  9 balanced policy contingency

The generator gives its users instant expertise, enabling them to give anything they write, not any particular meaning, but an air of decisive and knowledgeable authority.

Sadly, there is often not much difference between some serious writing and some of the parodies produced with the aid of buzzword generators.

Style

Make the writing fun to read. Put yourself in the shoes of the end user so they enjoy the reading process (and it’s more interesting for you to create):

  • use colour
  • use mind map summaries
  • use key point summaries at the start of sections
  • put quotes in speech bubbles
  • add relevant cartoons or diagrams to make points and add light relief
  • use the large collections of clip art that come with word processing programs.

It is rewarding to break the mould by bringing potentially dull material to life.

Checklist for reports (before finishing)

  1. What are the key business issues for the reader? Is the report focused on these issues?
  2. Does it conform to any required document styles?
  3. Is it as clear, accurate and concise as possible?
  4. Does it make clear recommendations?
  5. Has it been spell checked and proof read prior to review or release?
  6. Are sources fully and accurately attributed?
  7. Are claims substantiated, and disclaimers included if needed?
  8. What criteria will the reader use to determine quality and value for money?
  9. Will it undergo formal review and sign-off?
  10. Will the findings of the report be delivered in a presentation?