Writing Resources: Articles
Best Antidote to Information Overload: Helpful Headings
Given the newspaper headlines we have all been reading of late, perhaps it is timely for us to write about the benefits of adding descriptive headings to our business documents.
What is a heading?
The four words you just read are a heading – a group of words that tell the reader specifically what they are going to read about next. Just like in the newspapers. While newspaper headings may be a bit too dramatic for the average business report (“Man plummets to certain death from mountain top”), we can still learn from the overall approach.
Headings make life easier for readers
Well-crafted headings are a boon to the busy reader who needs to quickly scan a document to get the gist of it before digging in for a more thorough read. Headings will vastly improve the chances of your reports being read by even the busiest readers. They are one of the best antidotes to information overload.
Four tips for headings
- Replace dull and boring generic headings with something more descriptive. Instead of: Safety – try: Operating the equipment safely. Or instead of: Additional Features – try: More ways to use your Blackberry.
- Add a verb: good headings usually have one. Instead of: Quality Issues – try: Ensuring the quality of the product. Instead of: Findings – try: What we discovered from the survey. Get the idea?
- Use a question as a heading. Graduates of IWCC’s writing workshops might use their Reader Questions (RQ’s) as headings. How can we solve this problem? or What are the next steps?. Just one caution: Don’t use questions too much in a serious business report. When overused, questions can give out a condescending tone.
- Try the “how to” approach in your headings. This technique will often pique the reader’s interest and “pull them into” the report. For example: How to manage your e-mail more effectively or How we can profit in a bear market (We wish!!). The “how to” technique is particularly powerful when writing procedures.
Headings are not just for long reports
While judiciously crafted headings will do wonders for even the driest, most data-laden report, don’t be afraid to use them even in emails. Any piece of communication that is three or more paragraphs long can benefit from a heading or two. So give headings a try. Your readers will love you for it!
Quick & Dirty Editing
The perfectionists among us take great pride in sending out impeccably worded, well structured and perfectly proofed documents. At IWCC, we encourage our course participants to leave enough editing time to really polish up the final product.
The real world, however, sometimes has other ideas. We are all faced with jam-packed schedules and ever-tightening deadlines. Sometimes we simply have to get the document “out the door” – leaving little time for more than a half-hearted editing effort.
IWCC’s five quick fixes
Whether you find yourself editing your own writing (or someone else’s), here are five ways you can quickly spruce up your document when you are running out of time.
- Chop up long paragraphs: A quick visual check will tell you if you need to fix long paragraphs. Do you see long, uninterrupted blocks of text with few breaks or white space? That’s a real turn-off for most of today’s readers. Check to see if you are answering more than one Reader Question in a long paragraph. Or perhaps you have two themes intertwined in one paragraph. Chop them up; separate the two ideas; give each paragraph a strong Label (or Topic) Sentence; and presto, you have struck a blow for freedom for your information-loaded readers.
- Trim your sentences: If your average sentence length is 20 plus words, it’s time to do some pruning. Split them up into separate thoughts. Just be sure to use good connector words to avoid sounding choppy. A few long sentences are okay; but don’t feed them to your readers as a steady diet.
- Change passive verbs into active verbs: Much more than just a high school grammar exercise, this one change will dramatically improve the readability of your document. And the chances are it will shorten your document too. The effect will be both magical and cumulative…and your readers will thank you for giving them a document they can read and understand quickly.
- Inject some headings: Today’s readers are skimmers. No, it’s worse than that. They are impatient, time-starved, multi-tasking skimmers. As writers, we have to give them all the help we can. Good, descriptive headings (and sub-headings) help your readers to:
- follow your line of thinking
- find the information they need
- get to the point more quickly.
Check the cosmetics: A document that looks like a dog’s breakfast reflects poorly on the writer. Take a few minutes (yes, we know you have a deadline) to spruce up your final product. Check for consistent fonts; leave the right-hand margin unjustified; indulge in the luxury of some white space; and use the bold feature sparingly but strategically.
We could give you a dozen more tips on editing but – hey, you have to get that document to its destination fast. By investing the little time you have left in these five quick fixes, you will transform your text into a high quality, professional document. Remember, when your written documents look good, they make you look good too!
Writing To “Yes”: The Art Of Writing A Successful Business Proposal
Every day in corporations around the world, executives make thousands of decisions: some small and some so far-reaching that they can affect the future of the whole enterprise. But decisions large and small have one thing in common: the decision makers are almost always looking at a written document – a business case or proposal.
The document could be a two-page proposal requesting additional headcount; or it could be a 40-page business case proposing a new line of business. Regardless of the issue, the decision makers need the proposal writer to provide them with data that has been well researched and analyzed. And they need that information presented in a document that helps them make the best decision.
At IWCC, we have reviewed hundreds of business proposals over the years. Many fall into the same traps. Here are some tips to make your next proposal a winner:
- State the problem and its consequences right at the beginning. Crystallize the problem into one or two sentences and list the consequences in a concrete way so that you will get the attention of the executive reader.
- Make your recommendation early: State exactly what you want right after the problem/consequences. Get it out there; state it boldly; then move on to support your case. Don’t bury your request/recommendation at the end of the document.
- Offer alternatives: Explore one or - at most – two alternatives to your primary recommendation. Briefly discuss the pros and cons of the alternatives and why you discarded them. By doing so, you will demonstrate that you have done your homework; you have looked at the problem from different angles; and you are confident in your primary recommendation.
- Highlight the benefits: Don’t forget to “sell” your idea. Highlight both short and long term benefits and quantify them as much as possible (preferably in financial terms). For projects with large financial implications, be sure try to tie the benefits to one or more of the corporation’s high-level strategic objectives.
- Write an Executive Summary: For proposals of more than five pages, you must write a hard-hitting, self-standing Executive Summary in which you must capture the essence of the problem, your proposed solution and its benefits. Remember, the Executive Summary may be the only part of a large business case that a senior executive reads.
And lastly, take time to walk in the decision maker’s shoes. List all the key questions that YOU would need answered if YOU were the person making the decision. Make sure you have answered all these questions for your reader before you press the send button.
Just How Clear A Writer Are You?
Clear writing is in demand. From the executive suite to front line employees, readers are clamoring for clear, succinct, to-the-point messages that make sense and bring value. Is your writing (e-mail, letters, reports, proposals) clear, explanatory, and succinct? Or is it foggy, muddled, and long-winded? How can you find out if your writing is helping or hindering today’s busy reader?
Assess your reader response rate
Quite simply, take note of how often people respond positively to your writing – or if they respond at all. If your writing is hard to read, people may not be getting the point or, in worst-case scenarios, they may have given up trying.
If you suspect that you have a problem with your writing, ask a few people who receive your messages regularly to give you honest feedback. It is not a perfect measurement technique, but it is a good start.
Check your clarity with IWCC’s Impact Indicator
If you are a graduate of one of IWCC’s 2-day writing workshops, you will have used IWCC’s Impact Indicator in the past. Go back to your course manual and look up the Impact Indicator in the Table of Contents. Apply the Impact Indicator to several samples of your writing. Your score will tell you how clearly you are writing.
Let the Flesch-Kincaid Tool do the work
In a hurry? You can quickly check any Microsoft Word document for readability. Word uses a tool called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The test has two parts: reading ease and grade level. The reading ease score is the one to focus on. (The grade level test is a more crude measurement and is less reliable.)
This test scores your writing on a scale of 1 – 100 (100 being the best). The analysis shows your average words per sentence (try for no more than 20 words). It also shows the percentage of sentences in which you used passive verbs that make sentences harder to read.
Your goal is to aim for an overall readability score higher than 50. This article, for example, scores 60 on the readability scale; it has an average 14 words per sentence; and it has no passive verbs. By comparison, Time magazine scores about 52 while the Harvard Law Review has a general readability score in the low 30’s (a tough read!).
How to use the Flesh-Kincaid: It's simple. In any Word document, go to in the menu bar. Select from the drop down menu. Click on the tab, and then select. You are now ready to check the readability statistics of your document. Simply run the spelling and grammar checker in Word. After each time you run the spelling and grammar check, a message box will appear detailing the statistics for your document.
Checking your clarity is worth a try
While the science behind readability formulas is not perfect, tools such as the IWCC Impact Indicator and the Flesch-Kincaid are reasonable indicators of how clearly you write.
One word of caution: These tests measure the clarity of your writing only at the sentence level. They do not measure how cohesive your writing is; whether you have the right level of detail; or if you have expressed yourself in a constructive tone. These tools, however, are a good start and, if nothing else, they can alert you to a document that may need some editing.
Clear, easy-to-read writing is something worth striving for in your career. It will enhance your standing as a good communicator, and it will enhance your career. More importantly, your readers will love you for it!