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A No-nonsense Guide to EFFECTIVE WRITING for MBAs, Consultants, and Other Professionals
By CARTER DANIEL
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2012The McGraw-Hill Companies
All rights reserved.
Planning a Reader-Friendly Report
Right and Wrong, Boss and Book
What Business Writing Isn't and Is
Understanding the Assignment
Assessing the Audience
Determining the Controlling Purpose
Organizing a Report
RIGHT AND WRONG, BOSS AND BOOK
For some reason, questions of writing style and correctness bring out people's most mule-headed private opinions. A boss who doesn't know anything about calculus or linear programming would never think of overruling a subordinate on one of those subjects. But just let that same subordinate do something contrary to what the boss's ignorant sixth-grade teacher said—some asinine rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition or not starting one with and or because—and the boss will pounce with fangs bared.
Such a situation is much more political than it is intellectual, and the moral to be drawn from it is that if somebody is paying your salary, you should write the way that person wants. Writing is far less often "right" or "wrong" than it is "appropriate" or "inappropriate." Obviously, if you write in a way that irritates your boss, you're writing inappropriately.
This manual sets forth some reasonable suggestions about decent business writing—suggestions you might want to follow if you haven't been given any specific rules to govern the particular task you're doing. Everything that is said here, however, should be considered subject to being overruled by any special requirements you have been given for a particular assignment.
Just to make sure it's clear, let's say it one more time, a different way: For the love of mud, whatever you do, don't go wave this book in your boss's face and shout, "See? You're wrong!" When your boss tells you one thing and the book tells you something different, do what your boss says.
WHAT BUSINESS WRITING ISN'T AND IS
Business writing isn't a different language with a separate set of words and phrases. In receipt of, as per your request, beg to acknowledge, and please be advised are relics of the past. They aren't used anymore, or shouldn't be anyway.
Business writing also isn't dull and stereotyped. Bad writing is dull; good writing is interesting. These statements are true for all writing, business or any other kind. If you are interested in a subject but find the report dull, something's wrong with the way the report is written.
Business writing is just like any other writing except more efficient. Whereas some kinds of writing aim at being dreamy, witty, entertaining, spooky, outrageous, shocking, or sexy, when you're doing the kind of writing being described here you have only one aim: to persuade your reader, as efficiently as possible, of the validity of your thesis.
Think for a minute about who your audience is, and you'll understand the reason for insisting on efficiency. Businesspeople are intelligent, suspicious, and busy. So when you write for them you have to be factual, persuasive, and efficient: factual because they are too intelligent to be fooled by vagueness and bluffing; persuasive because you have to overcome the suspicion that always accompanies money matters; and efficient because you'll lose your reader if you waste time.
A few pages from now (page 9, to be exact) you will encounter a description of the thesis-and-subheaded-structured-segments organization, the standard pattern for organizing business reports. Even before you get there, however, you might do well to think for a moment about the whole reason for organizing a business report differently from the way you organize a magazine article, a novel, or an advertisement. Try this explanation:
The people who assigned you the report did so because they didn't have time to do the work themselves. They asked you the questions, and now they want the answers. The answers are, therefore, the most important things in your report, and you must organize your whole report around those answers and wave them in your readers' faces. State the answers at the beginning; elaborate on them one by one in the rest of the report; include only things that pertain to these answers; and be sure that the pertinence is always clear. Reread this paragraph.
Or, to be still more specific, don't say anything that isn't part of the answer to the question you were asked. Don't restate the problem, or announce that you have finished researching it, or summarize the background, or spend time defining terms, or tell about how you made your calculations or classified your evidence. Just answer the bleeding question, starting at the very very beginning. You may reread this paragraph too.
To put it still another way, don't say something unless you're making some point by saying it. If, for instance, there's nothing in the company's history that has any relevance to the problem, then in the name of good sense don't go into the company's history. On the other hand, if the company's problems are partly traceable to the fact that it has always been family owned, then by all means do tell the history—making sure, every moment, that the point of your telling it is clear.
Help your reader every way you can. Be certain that the point of each paragraph is clear. After you've finished writing, go back and check each one of them to see if you can state its point in a quick phrase and to see if each of these phrases fits in with the thesis. Even if the report is short, use subheadings not merely (1) to demarcate the segments but more importantly (2) to let the readers know what they're getting ready to read. And remember to include in your report only what your first paragraph promised. Never, for even a moment, let out of your sight the purpose of a business report: to convince your reader, as efficiently as possible, of the validity of your thesis. (More, as noted before, starting on page 9.)
UNDERSTANDING THE ASSIGNMENT
Before starting to answer the question, you've got to know what the question is. A sizable portion of business writing troubles can be traced to a failure to identify the assignment correctly. For example, although asked what to do about a problem, an incompetent report writer might waste the entire report telling instead how the problem occurred, which isn't the same thing at all. As a result, the reader has to suffer through the whole tedious report without ever finding out the answer to the question. Likewise if the boss asks a supervisor to recommend for or against promotion of an employee, but the supervisor instead spends the whole report recounting the employee's work history and never gets around to the yes-or-no recommendation, the boss will be furious—and should be, too, because it's a bad report.
The importance of this point can't be overstated: if you don't get the assignment right, if you don't answer the right question, then no amount of "good writing" or "extensive research" or "penetrating analysis" can salvage your report. You're fired.
Try writing out the specific question that you think your report is supposed to answer. That way, if you don't have a clear enough picture of the assignment, you'll quickly sense there's a problem. Be especially wary when your instructions contain words like "look into" or "analyze" or "see what you can find out about," because you need to know something more specific than just that to do a good job.
ASSESSING THE AUDIENCE
Likewise, before you start writing your report, be sure you know who you're writing to. Writing is, as page 3 said, less often "right" or "wrong" than it is "appropriate" or "inappropriate," and what's appropriate for one reader can be wildly off-center for another. For instance, what's exactly suited for a general audience of outsiders is unsuited (and boring) for insiders who know the technical language. Likewise, somebody who has asked you a question will simply be irritated if you spend half your report repeating the question; but on the other hand somebody who doesn't even know what the question was will be lost if you don't repeat it.
In assessing your audience you should determine the answers to two questions: (1) How much can you omit because the reader already knows it? and (2) How much technical knowledge does the reader have? Once you have the answers, follow these two rules: omit as much as possible, and be as technical as possible. Any other way of writing is inefficient and runs the risk of boring—and insulting—your readers.
Of course you need to think of more than just those two things. You have to figure out what your readers are looking for—that is, what they are going to be expecting when they pick up your report. If you try to be funny when they are being serious, or if you try to be leisurely when they're in a hurry, you will have magisterially screwed up. Think very carefully about the whole question. Put yourself in the position of the person your message is intended for, and try to imagine how you would react if you received a report like the one you have just written. Don't underestimate the importance of this part of the job.
DETERMINING THE CONTROLLING PURPOSE
The single most important element in achieving understandability, efficiency, clarity, and persuasiveness is control. Every sentence, every paragraph, and especially the report as a whole must be firmly controlled by a governing purpose.
From the very first, the reader must be able to see what the purpose of the report is. Then, in each paragraph, it must be absolutely clear to the reader what point is being made there. Even each individual sentence must relate in some clearly perceptible way to the ones preceding it. In this way the reader will never have to wonder, "Why am I being told all this? When will it get to the point?"
It should come as no shock, therefore, that formulating the purpose is the most important chore facing the writer. Most business writing problems—around 95 percent probably—can be traced to writers' lack of clarity about what they want to say. Bad writers always complain, "I know what I want to say, but when I sit down to write I can't say it." Baaaaaaloney. The truth is that they just think they know what they want to say: it's only when they start to write that they find they haven't really got it figured out at all. If they really knew what they wanted to say, right down to the little details, then saying it would be a snap.
Thus writing serves an additional purpose: besides communicating ideas to others, it is a way for writers to make sure their ideas are clear to themselves.
Corny Analogy. In an ordinary metal bar, the disarranged atoms point randomly in every direction. But when a strong magnetic field is brought to act on the bar, the atoms come into alignment so that they all point to the same end. As a result, the bar then picks up a magnetic force of its own.
A report in which the parts are disarranged and not clearly pointing in the same direction is lifeless and ineffectual. But when a strong controlling purpose aligns the parts of the report so that they all point to the same end, the whole report acquires a persuasive force of its own.
ORGANIZING A REPORT
Set forth in the next dozen pages of this manual is the thesis-and-subheaded-structured-segments organization pattern, the standard and most unmisunderstandable organization for use in business reports. What it does is to have you set out the parts of your argument in a systematic way and to let your reader know how you've done it so it will be easy to follow.
In three sentences, the "thesis-and-subheaded-structured-segments" pattern looks like this:
* The first paragraph states the thesis in such a way that the reader can tell (1) what the rest of the report will say and (2) in what order the material will be presented.
* Then the rest of the report goes on to follow exactly the order set up in the first paragraph, with segments clearly and visibly demarcated with thesis-like subheadings, so that the reader can tell where one part stops and the next part starts and can tell in advance what point each upcoming section is going to make.
* And the segments themselves are also carefully structured, so that they state the point, explain how it is to be presented, give the supporting details, and then summarize it.
This organizational pattern is the most basic characteristic of business report writing. You must use it. It not only helps the reader but clarifies and simplifies things for the writer too. Yet some people—all the way up through the almostboardroom in business and the almost-Ph.D. in school—never do learn how, and they remain "almosts" all their lives as a result.
First, you need to be sure you recognize the difference between a thesis and a topic; then you need to know how to state the thesis in the first paragraph; next you need to know what the subheadings look like; and finally you need to understand how to structure a paragraph.
Recognizing the Difference between a Topic and a Thesis
The topic is what you're writing about; the thesis is what you say about your topic. The topic is the question you've been asked to find an answer to; the thesis is the answer you find. The topic is generally assigned to you by your boss; the thesis is what you conclude after you've done all the research.
"The advisability of trying to acquire full or part ownership of the Schlerg Company" is a topic. "The Schlerg Company is not a suitable target for acquisition" is a thesis. See the difference?
Notice how much time and work elapsed between those two sentences. The topic is the question, and the thesis is its answer. Between the question and the answer lie all the hours (or weeks, or months) of research and study.
Thus another word for thesis is answer. Another is point. Another is conclusion. Another is findings. Another is object. Another is purpose.
Now try your hand at recognizing a topic and a thesis.
Stating the Thesis in the First Paragraph
Get straight to the point. In the first few lines, you must tell both what you have found out in your research and in what order you are going to present the explanation of your findings. "I recommend that we do not consider Mr. Nerf for the controller's position, because of his undistinguished past performance, his questionable integrity, and his abrasive personality"—that's a good thesis sentence. The first part tells what (I don't recommend him), and the second part tells what order (my three reasons).
Writers often—very often—screw up right at this point. It is therefore most important that you learn now exactly what is and what isn't acceptable as a thesis statement and how to go about formulating a good one.
Suppose, for example, you have been asked to look into the Schlerg Company as a possible acquisition by your company. After long hours of research, you have come up with the following 11 pieces of information:
Schlerg's sales have declined during all but one of the past eight years.
The company's debt/equity ratio is 8:1.
Five strikes have occurred in the last six years.
Company officers have denied persistent rumors that a pension fund scandal exists.
The government has awarded back pay to three of seven women who claimed discrimination.
Schlerg's stock is mentioned in Forbes as overpriced.
Environmental organizations have reportedly singled out Schlerg for boycott because of water pollution.
The Secretary of Labor alluded sarcastically to Schlerg during a recent address to the AFL-CIO.
The owners have charged workers with deliberately sabotaging machinery.
The state health department will investigate charges of excess radiation at two of Schlerg's plants.
Several minority-rights groups include Schlerg on their recommended boycott list.
Clearly the evidence shows that the company is bad news; you already know what your recommendation will be. The only decision you face is how to present the evidence so persuasively that your reader will agree with your point.
One possible way—the wrongest one—is simply to give the evidence as it happened to turn up in this list. Thus your report would blurt out that "Schlergis-an-undesirable-acquisition-because-of-declining-sales-poor-debt- equity-ratio-strikes-scandal-rumors-sex-discrimination-overpriced-stock- reported-environmentalists-boycott-Labor-Secretary-slur-alleged-sabotage- alleged-health-hazard-and-possible-minority-boycott." Of course that approach is the worst you could use, because it has little persuasive force and no memorability at all; in fact nobody (including you, right?) can remember half the points it made, and nobody can even come close to remembering the order they're in.
So instead, try grouping the points by subject. You will quickly see that a few major categories stand out:
High debt-equity ratio
Sex discrimination cases
Labor Secretary slur
Health hazard charge
Now you can tell your reader that Schlerg has three undesirable qualities—poor finances, poor labor relations, and poor public relations—and any reader (including you, right?) can easily remember all three points.
All that's left to do now is to put it all together in a thesis paragraph. Look how easy it is:
The Schlerg Company is not a desirable acquisition for us because of problems it has been experiencing in finances, labor relations, and public relations.
Anybody reading this one opening sentence knows immediately not just what the point is but in what order the reasons will be presented. And it's all easy to remember, too.
Now, just to clean the air, take a look at three good ones:
The Schlerg Company is not a desirable acquisition for us because of problems it has been experiencing in finances, labor relations, and public relations.
Or slightly expanded:
The Schlerg Company is not a desirable acquisition because of problems it has been experiencing in finances, labor relations, and public relations. Therefore I strongly urge that we forget all about any connection with Schlerg and instead turn our attention elsewhere.
Excerpted from Reader-Friendly Reports by CARTER DANIEL. Copyright © 2012 by The McGraw-Hill Companies. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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