Six simple rules for better business documents
Andrew S C Ehrenberg
Six rules which help to improve documents and technical writing are (1) Start at the end; (2) Signpost; (3) Be prepared to revise; (4) Cut down on long words; (5) Be brief; (6) Think of the reader.
What is our aim when we prepare our reports? Do we want to impress by their length and learned style, or to be read, understood, and remembered? Technical writing is plagued by the belief that it will be judged by its weight - the more work we have done, the better. Yet everyone has too much to read and there are frequent calls to be brief and to write clearly.
But how can brevity and clarity be achieved with our complex subject-matter? Much advice about writing is limited, such as 'Use active, not passive verbs'. This is good, but it does not have that much impact. There are however six other rules which can, I think, have a wider, more pervasive effect. Whenever I do not manage to apply them fully myself, I know I could have done better.
THE SIX RULES
- Start at the End. We generally write reports in an historical way, finishing with our results and conclusions. But readers usually want to know our findings before learning how they were obtained. Technical reports and journal articles are not detective stories. We therefore should start at the end, giving our main results and conclusions first.
- Signpost. We need to tell our readers what is coming and also where it is.
- Be Prepared to Revise. Few people can write clearly without revision.
- Cut Down on Long Words. Technical writing is often dense and heavy. It can be made more readable by using shorter sentences and fewer long words.
- Be Brief. Brevity is best achieved by leaving things out. This works at all levels: sections, paragraphs, sentences, and words.
- Think of the Reader. We must consider what our readers will do with our report or paper. What will they want to communicate to others?