Business Writing Tip #201—Four Quick Fixes to Make Your Business Documents Clearer

fix-to-make-clearThe English language has a rich vocabulary and we can use it to express anything we want to express. Business English, though, needs to be clear, and easy to read. You don’t want your readers to be running off to check the dictionary all the time, or to struggle working out the meaning of complex sentence structures.

I have written previous tips about using Plain English, and I always recommend it for business writing.

There are, however, other ways that you can help your reader understand what you are saying.

Fix 1 – Use Images

You can use graphs and charts to describe trends. Pictures can highlight aspects of your text, or illustrate points.

  • Images are particularly useful in technical documents. A diagram of a component will usually be much easier to understand than a written description.
  • Or perhaps you are writing a report comparing different conference venues. To make it easy to compare different venues you can include floor plans which show information such as:
    • room size,
    • shape,
    • possible seating arrangements.

Fix 2 – Use Tables

Tables can organise information and make it easy for readers to find specific details. For example, a table is a practical way to present a budget, making debits and credits clear. You can use tables to present sales information, client details (names, addresses, contact numbers, special requirements, etc). Columns can be highlighted to indicate what information is most important, and your reader can then choose whether to delve deeper in the data. You can also use tables to model what-if scenarios and the like.

Fix 3 – Use Lists

You can see from the paragraphs above, the lists in Fix 1 are easier to read than the full block of text in Fix 2. Lists can show a hierarchy of information. They also add white space which helps a reader scan the text quickly and find the information that is most relevant to them.

Fix 4 – Use Examples

If you look at the three fixes above, you will see that I have given the general fix (for example, tables can organise information), and then I’ve made it clear what I mean by giving examples. People often find it easier to understand concrete examples, rather than abstract concepts.

 

If you’re wondering how best to make your information clear, always look beyond using words alone. Think of using images and your layout to help make things clear. Remember that in most cases your readers won’t know as much as you do about the topic and you want them to understand your messages easily.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #179—Memo, Letter or Email?

Email is so common these days it seems to have taken the place of traditional letters, or memos. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and wondering whether memos and letters still have a place in business writing. And I’ve concluded they do.

So, when might we consider a memo, or a letter, rather than an email? Here are some email layoutideas. Of course you can always distribute a memo or letter via email (attach the main document rather than including it in the body of the email).

When the message will have a long life

By this I mean that a memo is ideal if your message is going to be read, and referred to, over a period of time. For example, if it’s to announce a new policy, to introduce an important report or to provide some technical details. Think about how many times you expect people to refer to the item. If you think they’ll read it again and again, use a memo.

When the format is important

Some documents include tables, graphs, bulleted or numbered lists, graphs, headings … These are added to make the document clear and easy to read, but sometimes these elements can be distorted in an email. If the layout and format is important, avoid sending the information in the body of an email.

If people are likely to print your document

Sometimes it’s important for people to have a printed copy of your document. It might be something they need to refer to regularly (think about a proofreading checklist). Again send the document as an attachment.

For formal communication

By producing a document on letterhead, with company details and the names and contact details of the recipient and author, you indicate that the contents are important. Your document is more likely to be taken seriously.

When you are communicating with clients

An email is fine with vendors and peers, but if you are writing to someone you serve (customer, patient, etc.) a letter remains the traditional format.

I’d love to hear from you if you have any suggestions on when a letter or memo is better than an email.

Happy writing.

 

 

 

 

Business Writing Tip #173—Make it look good

In past posts I’ve written about how to make your text easy to read. In this post I will touch on typography—an important aspect of your document which isn’t about the words. Typography is the style and appearance of printed matter. These ‘rules’ are adapted from Purdue University Online Writing Labowl

Basic rules

  • Avoid using more than two types of font in one document.
  • Make sure you can read all the text against the background. If you are using colour make sure the colours work well together and will print clearly in black and white (not everyone has a colour printer).
  • Unless instructed otherwise, left-justify your body text.
  • Use a simple serif font such as Times New Roman or Cambria for body text. (Serifs are the small projections which finish off letters in some fonts.)
  • Use Arial or other sans serif fonts such as Franklin Gothic Book or Calibri for headings.
  • Avoid unusual fonts for professional documents.
  • Use 10 or 12 point font for body text.
  • For headings, bold the text or use a different font; bolding and underlining looks ugly and is difficult to read.

I’ve just got one more thing to add. If your organization has a style guide, follow it. Organizations develop their style guides because they want you to use them to present a consistent brand image. If your organization doesn’t have a style guide, think about creating one.

Happy writing.

(In case you’re wondering about the owl photo, the Purdue Online Writing Lab calls itself Purdue OWL.)

Business Writing Tip #109—The Memo

A memo is a document that is either used to:

  • Communicate policies, procedures or some other official business within an organisation, or
  • Persuade or ask someone to do something.

Memo Contents

Header:

TO: (readers’ names and job titles)

FROM: (your name and job title)

DATE: (complete and current date)

SUBJECT: (a brief, meaningful description of what the memo is about)

Message:

  1. Introduction—the purpose of the memo, the context and problems, and a specific assignment or task if there is one. Gives the reader a brief overview of what the memo will be about. Usually the length of a short paragraph (a few lines).
  2. Body—includes the major information points. Start with the context; that is the background to the problem you are solving. State the problem.
  3. Task—describe what you are doing to address the problems. If you have been asked to look into something you could start with, “You asked that I look at …”, or if you want to explain something, “To determine the best way ahead, I will …” This information focuses on the information the decision-maker needs, or the information that your staff need to know.
  4. Discussion—this is the longest part of the memo and includes all the details to support your ideas, for example the supporting ideas, facts and research that back up your argument. Begin with the most important information (this might be your key findings or recommendations).

Closing:

Close the memo by stating what action you want the reader to take. If it is a longish memo (more than one page) you might include a brief summary.

Memo Layout

As with any other business writing you want to make your memo easy for your reader to read, so use headings, lists and white space. Make your headings specific. For example if you are making recommendations about marketing, use “New Marketing Recommendations” rather than “Summary”.

sample memo

*Sample Business Memo taken from:

Brown, K. G., and Barton, D.J.  (n.d.).  Brief guide to business writing.  Retrieved March, 2014, from http://www.biz.uiowa.edu/faculty/kbrown/writing.html

Business Writing Tip#105—Some Common Types of Reports and Common Elements

We use the word report to refer to many different kinds of documents. I’m sure there are many more than I’ve included in this list but just some of the most common business reports are:Report writing 101

  • Sales reports (sales figures for different products in different regions over specified time periods)
  • Market research analyses (analyses a company’s competitive position in the industry, identifying such things as potential new markets and product areas)
  • Financial reports (might discuss budgets, or be the text that accompanies company accounts)
  • Progress reports (about progress on an ongoing project)
  • Appraisal reports (about an employee’s performance, training needs and goals)
  • Feasibility studies (investigations into the viability of a system, project or product line)
  • Business plans (describe an organisation’s medium to long-term strategy)
  • Inquiry reports (report on an investigation into an ongoing issue, identifying causes and recommending action)
  • Case studies (analysis of a particular project or situation that communicates the lessons learned during the implementation)
  • Quality reports (monitor standards, identifies failings, suggests actions)

Now while there are many kinds of reports, there are some commonalities. Some of these are in style, some in layout and some in the structure of reports.

Style

When it comes to style we usually want reports to be:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Factual
  • Careful
  • Balanced
  • Measured
  • Written with a high level of grammatical accuracy

Layout

When you’re working out the layout think about your audience and how you want to make it easy for the reader to find the information they need. Consider using:

  • Systematic numbering of sections and subsections
  • Bullet points and lists
  • Visuals such as charts, tables and diagrams
  • Areas of blank space at the margins for readers to make notes

In the next post we will look at the structural elements of reports.

Business Writing Tip No 40—More about Reports

When you’re putting together a report, the amount of information you need to include will dictate its length and the sections that you need to include. For a long report, you will want to create a logical structure that makes it easy for your reader to find the information they need. A shorter report still needs a logical structure, but may have fewer sections.

In this post I’ve included the principal sections that you would include in a full-length report, and what to include in each section.

Title Page

This page includes:

  • Report title
  • Author or authors
  • Date of issue (or publication)sample cover page

Avoid adding page numbering to your cover page.

It’s useful to centre to the information both vertically and horizontally and to use a large font size for the report title. To centre your page vertically in MS Word, use the page layout function. Put a section break (next page) at the end of you title page, and then use centre for your vertical alignment. Make sure you click that the alignment refers to ‘this page’ (not ‘whole document’ or ‘this point forward’). The alternative way to do this is to include a heap of manual line feeds, which makes for messy coding.vertical alignment - centred

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Executive Summary

This section is the most important section of your report because it is the section that most people will read.

It should include:

  • The subject
  • Your conclusions
  • A brief description of how you arrived at the conclusions

For a short report this section will typically be 100 to 200 words. For a longer report it could be up to one page long. It must stand by itself and be easy to read.

Contents List

You probably don’t need this for a short report, but it’s useful to include a contents list with page numbering for longer reports)

Introduction

This section:

  • Provides the background to the issue or work
  • Summarises the problem
  • Includes the terms of reference
  • Describes the purpose of the report

It is usually about 200 to 300 words long.

Body of the Report

In this section you describe the methods used to find out about the problem and the facts the method uncovered. This section also includes details of the significance of the problem and the associated facts. Present any alternatives you have considered, and discuss the benefits and risks associated with each option.

The body of your report may also include details such as the cost of each alternative and implementation times.

Each alternative should be discussed in a separate paragraph or, for a complex issue, you may include separate sub-headings.

Conclusion

This is a short section which should answer the question, ‘What is the real meaning of this report?’

Recommendation

In this section you state the recommended course of action and why you have chosen this particular course. You justify the idea that you are proposing.

If there are resource implications, i.e. you are suggesting particular people work on the project team, include them here. If you have a draft implementation plan, that can be included here or attached as an Appendix.

Bibliography or References

If you have referred to any documented sources in the report, include the details here. Some of your readers might want to read more about the information you have provided, or to check a source. This section can include details of books, journal articles, web pages, other company reports, and the like.

Before You Submit Your Report

Just a word of guidance. Before you submit your report, take the time to check the following:report check

Business Writing Tip #29 – Some more pointers about layout

In the previous post I talked about using lists as a way to make your text easier for your reader to read. But there are times when we can’t use lists. So what can we do then?

Write short paragraphs

When it comes to reading a novel by Charles Dickens you might be happy to work your way through long paragraphs, but when it comes to business writing, short is definitely sweeter. Short sentences. Short paragraphs.

You want to make it easy for readers to skim read what you have written.

You want to avoid people struggling for hours to work out just where your sentence or paragraph is heading.

So keep it short.

Use white space

Think about it. It may seem as though it’s wasted space, but when there’s white space on the page, between the paragraphs and between the sections, it’s easier for your eye to run through it quickly and find the relevant information.

Which document would you prefer to read?

Use space when you lay out business letters. Put space between the heading, the greeting, each paragraph, your closing, and your signature block.

Font

Keep your font simple. I suggest a serif font like Times New Roman or Cambria for printed documents, and a sans serif font like Arial for things people will read on their screens. If you use colour, use it to highlight items that you really need to emphasise, and use it sparingly. A document with too many fonts and too many colours looks messy.

Headings

Use headings to guide your reader through your document. Not everyone needs to read everything. If you make it clear that certain information is contained in certain sections, people can read what they need to.

Graphics and Images

Use appropriate graphics and images to illustrate your points. If you want to show a price trend, or company growth, a clear graph will make your point more quickly than a narrative. These also help to break up large chunks of text and make the overall document more accessible to your readers.

Business Writing Tip #28 – Using Lists

At work it seems like each day there is more to read. There are more emails, more journals, more articles, more reports.

Each day we are faced with hundreds, even thousands, of words.

But you write as well. You are part of the challenge. You are creating words that others have to read.

And you want people to read your words, otherwise you wouldn’t write them.

In this tip we will look at lists and how to use them to help make your writing easy to read. You see, lists are very easy for people to scan quickly.

There are two kinds of lists:

  1. Ordered lists
  2. Unordered lists

Ordered Lists

In ordered lists we use numbering. This numbering implies an order or sequence.

A numbered list can also be used, as I have done, when you want to emphasise the number of items. There are two kinds of lists, there are three possible solutions, there are ten members on the team. Or you might want to tell people to follow a sequence of actions, in order.

So if you need to put things in order, or if you want to emphasis the number of points, use a numbered list.

Bulleted Lists

  • Bulleted lists are the lists to use when you just want to list a number of things, without implying a sequence or specific order
  • These use a graphic symbol to introduce each point
  • Usually it’s a ‘bullet’, but it could be a check mark or finger pointing (often used in presentation materials).