Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to draft a better business document

This advice is directed at a business audience but drafters of legal documents will find it familiar and helpful too. From the Harvard Business Review:

The proper use of paragraphs. A paragraph can express multiple thoughts. In business writing, it should express one. If you have a suggestion ("buy more cows") and a counter suggestion ("sell all the cows") that are both reasonable, but based on different assumption ("the ability of cows to manage portfolio investments for our clients") then put those two contrasting thoughts and their reasoning in separate paragraphs. One paragraph; one point of view.

Simple sentences. A sentence can say more than one thing. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." But you're not Dickens, and you're not trying to entertain a Victorian readership who reads by gas lamps and constantly fears explosions, and you're not being paid by the word. One sentence; one idea.

The primacy of the first sentence.
Mystery is for M. Night Shyamalan. In business writing, tell the reader what your document is about in the first sentence. If there's a title or a subject line before the first sentence, tell it there. You're not writing for the New York Post. "Wacko Jacko" may be compelling, but you're better off with "Analysis of Michael Jackson's Mental State During Final Performance." Boring, yes, but you're not paid for excitement — and if you are, let me know, because that's pretty cool. I mean, do you swallow fire or jump out of airplanes naked? Either way, what are you doing reading the Harvard Business Review?

Reading vs. scanning. Books are read. Business documents are scanned. Expect that this will happen to your carefully edited material. Where you've slaved over whether to write "the plan calls for" or "the call for plans," your readers will never notice because they're zooming by at 340 meters per second — just under the speed of sound at sea level — otherwise, their eyeballs would make a sonic boom (and people notice that kind of thing). To make sure your message gets across, give clues to where the information that matters to the reader resides. Easy to read titles, subject lines, headings, and bullet lists, are all helpful in getting those zooming eyeballs to pause.

Tone of voice. How you say what you are saying, quietly, loudly, with a possum on your lap, is not conveyed once the words are embedded in your email or printed on the page. Therefore, be careful not to assume your sarcasm, hopefulness, or fear of rabid possums will be correctly interpreted. Say what you mean to say. Don't expect anything to be inferred.

Humor. Humor doesn't work in business writing. Never. See "tone of voice," above.

You can read the rest here.


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