7 Steps to Better Writing - Charles Maxwell 2020
Application – Preparing informative documents
This chapter discusses how to use the 7-step writing process to prepare informative (that is, non-fiction) documents.
I still recall the apprehension I felt 40 years ago when asked to evaluate a complex business problem and write a report recommending action. I had recently taken a new job as a young engineer at a large copper mine in Arizona. The manager asked me to examine the economic viability of two lime-burning kilns. He explained the company had decided to close a leaching plant, which consumed most of the lime from the kilns. Senior management needed to know what to do with the kilns. A take-or-pay contract supplying additional lime complicated the question.
I knew little about the lime business and less about economics. Yet, I had been assigned to find out what needed to be done and make a recommendation. The decision represented several million dollars per year and affected about 20 people, who operated the lime burning plant and the quarry supplying limestone to the kilns.
I felt trepidation not knowing how to start my investigation. How was I going to collect data, analyze it, and make a recommendation? I wasn’t sure.
Nevertheless, I started asking questions and collecting data. Eventually I figured out how the company could minimize its expense. I wrote it up in a report. The manager was happy with the results. And boy was I relieved when I heard that he was satisfied.
Each new assignment to generate a report or make a presentation reminds me again that the way to overcome the angst of not knowing much about a new writing project is to get started. If you begin and keep working, everything eventually falls into place.
To help you begin some of those scary writing assignments, this chapter provides advice. You will find tips on how to prepare the documents most often required in business and other real-life situations.
Email is the most prevalent type of informative writing. Surveys show that office workers typically spend 30% of their time reading and writing email.
Determine your purpose and identify your readers
As previously discussed, before you begin writing, identify your readers and understand the purpose of your communication. Decide if email is the right media.
Would it be better to make a phone call or send a text message? People will immediately read a text message—but this is less likely with an email. On the other hand, a phone call provides instant feedback, more privacy, and greater flexibility, if the other person answers the phone. The downside of using the phone is many people fail to pick up or return phone calls.
Also, remember, email is never private. Assume that people other than your original recipients will someday read your email. In addition, an email server will retain a copy forever. If you need privacy, use the phone or talk face-to-face.
Add “To” and “Copy” names last
Wait to add the names of your readers to the “To” and “Copy” fields until after you write the message. This prevents sending the email prematurely.
Focus on one topic
If you need to discuss several different subjects, send separate emails. Moreover, if your email provides different information for different recipients, consider sending separate emails with only the material relevant to each person.
Summarize your message in the subject field
Add a concise and meaningful subject line. This helps readers determine the importance of the message. Give them a reason to open your message. Remember that many business people receive as many as 100 non-spam emails each day. So help them see immediately that your email is worthwhile.
Make your subject as clear and as precise as possible. The subject line: “Staff meeting, 2:00 PM Monday, to discuss next year’s budget,” is better than “Important upcoming meeting.”
Do not fill the subject line with the words Important, Priority, Read Immediately, etc. Rather, say what is important, such as “Registration closes tomorrow at 5:00 PM.”
Realize that excessively long subject lines are hard to read. From the Inbox view, smart phones truncate long subject fields, making it more difficult to understand an emails’ purpose. Remember many email programs sort messages by trends, which key off the subject line. Furthermore, research shows that limiting the subject field to 7 words improves opening rates and engagement. Finally, consider how you or others will search for your message later.
Use appropriate salutations
For formal situations, use the common opening salutations: Dear Mr./Ms./Mrs. For formal closing salutations use: Cordially, Sincerely, Warmest regards, etc.
For more informal occasions, such as when addressing colleagues, use first names for opening and closing salutations. When repeatedly exchanging emails with close colleagues, you can drop salutations completely.
If in doubt, error on being more formal.
When sending an email to a person who does not know you, identify yourself. At the beginning of the message, start with something like, “Dear Ms. Anson, I am Joan Pearson. Susan Zumwalt suggested that I write you …” Then at the end of the email, provide a text block with your name, position, company, mailing address, physical address, office phone number, cell phone number, and/or website.
Indicate if action is required
State in the first paragraph if the reader needs to respond or if you are providing the email only as information. Place requests early in the message, and restate your requests at the end of the message.
Be concise, direct, and polite
Use as few words as possible to provide the information requested or to ask for the help needed. Brief emails help recipients save time. In business, do not ramble or chitchat.
Be direct, but polite. Use a respectful, kind tone. People are more likely to respond to a pleasant request.
Never express anger in an email—it can come back to haunt you. When addressing conflict, refocus the conversation on constructive solutions.
When you receive a message that you feel is harsh or demanding, ask for clarification. You might write, “What did you mean when you said …?” or “I’m not sure how to read this.”
Do not prematurely take offense. Give others an opportunity to clarify their request or position. If possible, use the phone to take their comments or hear their problems. If necessary, refer complaints to persons whom the opponent respects or who has power to resolve problems.
When responding by email, include statements such as, “As you requested last Thursday, concerning the product launch planned for June 5th, here are suggestions who should attend.”
Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.
Use active voice as much as possible.
Use a simple, easy-to-read font.
Use mixed case. Do not use all lower case—it looks sloppy. In addition, do not use all upper case—it implies you are shouting or commanding. Especially in business, using all lower or upper case conveys laziness.
Use only abbreviations and acronyms that your readers readily understand.
Consider adding a simple table and/or chart with a brief explanation to summarize long, attached reports.
Organize your message
Break long email messages into sections. If you see that an email will run more than a few hundred words, consider replacing it with a memorandum or report.
When providing complex answers, place elements in bulleted or numbered lists.
Add attachments only if necessary
Avoid attachments if you can efficiently insert the information into the email body. There is no need to send a large attachment if the reader needs only a small part of the document.
Do not send attachments unless they are specifically required. Attachments consume bandwidth, take time to open, require time to read or scan, and introduce security risks. Time-conscious and security-conscious readers will avoid or delete messages with large attachments. Also, realize that attachments often do not display well on mobile devices.
When needing to send many files or several large files use a file hosting service, such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. You can find a list of the more popular file hosting services at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_file_hosting_services.
Carefully proof your email before sending it. Check the subject field to ensure your subject line summarizes the message and provides a reason for your readers to open the email. Activate spell-checking and grammar-checking features. Reread the message to ensure that you did not leave out words. If the email is highly important, have other persons review the email before sending it.
As already noted, add the recipients after the message is written and proofed. Double-check the recipients’ field. Make sure you do not inadvertently send the document to a wrong person. Include only those recipients who need to know. And when you want recipients’ names and email addresses to remain confidential, add recipients to the blind copy field.
Here are further suggestions regarding email:
· Respond promptly. When you receive a request for assistance, if you are too busy to help within a few hours, respond promptly by saying that you cannot help immediately and state a time when you can get to their request.
· When a person asks for free advice or free work that you cannot provide gratis, tell them politely that you cannot help them, and if possible, suggest an alternative solution, such as offering to do the work for a fee or suggesting another resource.
· Use email folders and email automation software to organize incoming email.
· To save time reading and responding to email, use the following procedures:
· Last in first out (LIFO) — read the last received email first
· Handle only once (HOO) — after reading an email, delete it, forward it to another person to handle, respond to it, or set it aside to handle later (only doing this for messages that you cannot delegate and that require much time)