These are notes I took several years ago over something I read on writing good business documents. I can’t recall what I had read, but these notes have always been helpful.
General principles for proposals, memos, letters, and reports.
“Organization is the key writing principle. If you organize your documents well, you almost surely will have successful documents–even if you violate other writing principles….The ideas presented in a document should be structured in a natural but emphatic sequence that conveys the most important information to readers at the most critical times.”
1. The document should announce its organizational scheme and stick to it.
2. The ideas in the document must be clear and sensible, and comprehensible, given the readers.
3. The document should conform to the readers’ sense of what the most important points are and of how those points are arranged.
1. Organize information according to your readers’ needs. Consider their perspective and what they need to know, then order it so that the most pertinent goes at the beginning.
2. Group similar ideas. If you separate similar ideas, you create chaos.
3. Place your most important ideas first. Lead from major ideas, not to major ideas. This is not a science paper. If you lead to, you will provide unnecessary detail and be hard to follow. The strongest part of a document is the beginning, by virtue of its position. So begin with the most important ideas, and then support them afterward.
– The scientific format. If you are writing a scientific paper, then you do lead to. This process is only acceptible if the readers will be as interested in the process of arriving at the conclusions as they are in the conclusions themsleves (in business, this is typically not the case–people are busy, and the point is not exegesis). In some scientific reports, therefore, this scheme is used: Abstract, summary, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion (Fact 1, Fact 2, Fact 3, therefore), conclusions, recommendations (optional), summary (optional).
– The managerial format. Follow in all dcouments except sicentific documents written for scientific peers. It is the reverse of the scientific format. A desirable format is: Summary/Executive summary, introduction, conclusions (and recommendations), (because of) [Fact 1, Fact 2, Fact 3, Fact 4], results and discussion. Having the conclusion early in the report facilitates reading becasue the reader is given a perspective from which to understand the facts and data being presented.
Note: The principle of emphasis through placement extends to all documents and all sections of documents. Most important ideas should appear at beginning of the documents and of individual sections. The most important idea in most paragraphs should appear in the opening sentence. The most important words in a sentence typically come at the beginning of the sentence.
Note 2: A corrolary of this is that you should always subordinate detail. Place it in the middle of sentences, paragraphs, sections, and documents. Detail includes data, explanation, elaboration, description, analysis, results, etc.
Note 3: In lengthy documents, begin and end with important ideas.
4. Keep your setups short. Do not delay your major ideas any longer than is necessary. Do make sure to set up negative information well.
5. List items in descending order of importance.
6. In most business or technical documents, preview your most important ideas and your major content areas, and reveiw (summarize) major points at the end of sections.
7. Discuss items in the same order in which you introduce them.
8. Use headings, transitions, key words, and paragraph openings to provide cues to the documents organization.
9. Other. Most effective letters or memos should have a clearly identified action (a to-do statement). If no to-do, then needs to begin with a to-know statement. Title/subject line should reflect the to-do or to-know statement. The repitition between the to-do statement and title/subject line is deliberate.