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Effective Business Writing: Structure your document

The BEHQ Guide to Business Writing lays out 15 basic areas you need to master to write clearly and effectively.

In a nutshell, the BEHQ Guide gives you simple guidelines to:

  1. understand your focus,
  2. plan properly,
  3. structure your document,
  4. use appropriate writing style, and
  5. know how to self-edit.

Let’s look at the all important task of organizing your business document.

You already know your audience, you’ve brainstormed your subject, and you’ve done your research. You are full of ideas and information to impress and persuade your audience.

You’re now ready to create an outline for your content. The key here is that your content must be structured logically. Once that’s completed, you can begin the writing process by producing a first draft. Then you can go back to draft and develop your message.

Outlining

Some people think it is busywork to create an outline. They think that they can wing it. For short informal reports, they may be right. However, for formal research or analytical reports a good outline is essential for creating a professional document. In order to be effective, convincing, and impressive, you must consistently write compelling documents for your boss, colleagues, clients, and peers.

Some of the tips and strategies I gave for organizing a talk in “Structuring a Presentation, Part 1” can apply to structuring writing too, especially in the kind of formal documents I’ve mentioned.

First, an outline helps you organize your ideas in a logical and orderly way. It gives a detailed overview of what you are writing about. And it shows readers how your ideas are related.

As I mentioned before, an outline is usually divided into major and minor points. You can create an outline using either phrases or sentences. Some experts recommend the “sentence” format because it is clearer. It also helps you the writer clarify your thinking. It enables you to build a solid structure for your ideas.

Here is an example of the beginning of an outline for both formats.

[note]Subject: Planning for an older population

Research shows that the proportion of older people to younger people in North American society is increasing. This demographic shift will require new planning for the future.

Outline 1: Phrases Outline 2: Sentences
I. Evidence of the shift I. Evidence of the shift in the ratio of older people is clear in the latest statistics.
A. The declining birthrate A. The birth rate is declining. The average woman is having fewer children.
B. The changing death rate B. The death rate is decreasing. Older people living are living longer.
C. Population profiles for the future C. The latest data give us a profile of future population ratios. Statistics indicate an older population.
1. Profiles based on current rates 1. We can predict the profiles if we assume the same birthrate and a lower death rate.
2. Profiles based on different future predictions 2. We can suppose a lower birthrate and the same death rate.

 

Adapted from The Vest-Pocket Writer’s Guide.[/note]

Remember that an outline is not a static tool. I find myself often revising an outline on the fly during the writing phase. I may see a new relationship among ideas or a new way to present information.  Another point:  I tend to write out my outlines on paper rather than on the computer. Obviously, you must do what works for you, but if you find outlining in Word or text editors stifle your creativity, take out a piece of paper and get to work. We’ll see later that a business research report has a standard format to which you can add your outline of main and minor points.

Let’s now move on to writing the first draft.

Writing a draft

Now that the background work is done, it’s time to start the writing process. Even though I’m usually well prepared, I sometimes find it hard to get the “train moving.” Once that’s accomplished, however, I gain momentum fast and the process becomes easier.

Here are my own tips and strategies for writing. Experiment with these as you write and let me know how helpful they are in the comments:

  • I set myself a time limit for writing periods, usually segments of two or three hours interspersed with frequent pauses.
  • I create a skeletal (outline) document in Google docs or Open Office based on the outline.
  • I almost never start at the beginning of a document. That usually comes later, perhaps in the second draft.
  • I copy some of my research notes and thoughts into the related sections of the outline.
  • I get my ideas down as quickly as possible. If I’m not pleased with a word or the phrasing of sentence, I’ll return to it in the “revising” phase .
  • I aim to develop one idea per paragraph which usually begins with a topic or key sentence.
  • I try to write three to five sentences per paragraph. The shorter the paragraphs the better, especially for e-documents that will be read on the computer.
  • I use linking expressions to connect sentences and paragraphs together smoothly, such as “however” to show contrast and “moreover” to add information.
  • I write notes to myself in brackets in the document reminding me what I need to develop.
  • If I get stuck on a section, I leave it and return to it later.
  • I try to keep my writing as simple as possible. I avoid having too many “complex” sentences that may either confuse or bore the reader.

Developing your message

Here are some suggestions for making your document as informative and persuasive as possible.

  • Give your reader enough background information as necessary.
  • Include specific examples, statistics, dates, percentages, or quotations to support your arguments.
  • Avoid any unnecessary or obvious information so as not to waste the reader’s time.
  • Divide your document into sections and subsections that are visually appealing and easy to follow.

Using Visuals

Including visuals in your business document is a great way to support the text and communicate key ideas.

Here are some recommendations for using tables and figures the smart way:

  • when using a table (text in columns) or figure (a visual representation of results), refer to it in the text,
  • the meaning of a table or figure should speak for itself and be clear to the reader,
  • place a table or figure in an appropriate place next to the text,
  • visuals should not duplicate the text,
  • use figures such as graphs and charts to present statistical information: examples include pie charts to show relationships among multiple values and bar charts for comparisons and trends,
  • other useful figures include diagrams, drawings, maps and photographs.

Adapted from The AMA Handbook of Business Writing (pp. 13-14) 

I know it is not easy to write an effective business document, but creating a great outline, organizing your thoughts, and mapping your passage is absolutely essential for consistency and doing well. What do you think? What are some excellent techniques you do to keep your writing clear and organized?

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