Ten tips for high-impact documents

Start with the reader in mind

Do they know much about the topic? Do they understand your jargon or acronyms? How important is this information to them? How interested are they in it? (That’s not the same thing.)

Be sure of your core message before you start writing.

Imagine you are going on TV for a three-minute interview. Could you sum up the value of your topic in three minutes? Write yourself a short statement (fewer than 30 words) that you could use as a memory aid to help you sell your topic to the interviewer. Try using it to clarify your thoughts on the issue while speaking to a trusted colleague. This will all help you keep the main message in mind when you’re doing the writing itself.

Be sure to make your beginning memorable

If you don’t grab your reader at the beginning of the document, you are wasting your time. Getting a reader started is the most difficult part of writing, but there are techniques you can use. Try starting with a surprise statement for instance, or contrasting how things were in the recent past with how they are now (in two or three sentences).

Go out with a bang

Good endings are almost as important as good beginnings. The last thing you want to do is leave the reader with the impression that you’ve just run out of things to say. Useful techniques are: looking to the future, repeating a major issue or summarising. But be careful with the last one: keep that summary to two or three sentences.

Keep it short and simple

Write to express, not to impress. (No flowery language.) Good ideas come across much better in plain English. That means: write the person or subject before the verb. ‘The company received the order’ is better than ‘The order was received by the company’.

Make your sentence structure logical

Say what the sentence is about straight away, before you add extra information. Say what’s happening, before you say why.

Use graphics where possible

We all learn in different ways. Some people like written explanations, while others are more ‘visual’ and prefer graphics and illustrations. Pictures are therefore a great way of drawing visual people into your document. (Be careful with clip art, though.) So use a graph rather than a table of data, for example.

Stick to two fonts

Use one serif font (eg Times) for the body text and one sans serif font (eg Arial) for headings and subheadings.

E-mail

Limit messages to one screen – and use attachments for longer messages.

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