Don’t fall into this common document-writing trap

Thoughtful person sitting at desk and looking at computer screenWhen most people set out to write something like a report or proposal, they make one fundamental error.

They might adapt a similar one that they wrote before or find one that someone else has written and model that. Or they’ll tweak a template – which is probably also based on a report that someone else has written.

On the surface, these approaches all make sense. After all, why waste time reinventing the wheel? Surely anything that reduces the effort of writing has to be a good thing?

Usually, yes, but not in this case. In fact, reducing effort in this way could mean you end up squandering all your hard work.

Here’s why.


The information trap

When you repurpose what’s gone before, you fall into what we might call the information trap.

This approach treats writing as if it’s just a case of taking the information from one head (yours) and feeding it into another (the reader’s).

It’s based on thinking of the human brain as a computer. But the trouble is, it’s not.

This key misunderstanding means that, by reducing the effort you take to write something, you reduce the effort it takes to read it too. And in this case at least, that’s actually a bad thing.


How we really read

Yes, you read that correctly. Bizarre as it may sound, you do want the recipient to have to work a little to read what you write. (Not too much – many documents take way too much effort to read, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Why? It’s called the fluency effect. And it all comes down to how our brains really read.

Reading is such an incredibly complex process that it’s only possible to do it at speed by taking shortcuts. And one of the best shortcuts of all is predicting what’s coming next as we process each sentence and paragraph.

Instead of focusing on every word, we pick out what’s different from what we predicted and create a kind of error signal. And it’s only that error signal that makes it through to the higher centres of the brain.
Focused human eye in close-up

We see what we expect to see

But to create that, we need a sign that something is different. And this is where adapting old documents works against you. Because the more familiar something looks, the more the brain relies on what it’s seen before.


Reading on autopilot

When you take last month’s report, update the stats, change the commentary and make a few other tweaks to bring it all up to date, that’s obviously going to be quicker than writing one from scratch.

But the person who opens it sees a report that looks almost exactly like last month’s, which means they may well miss much of the new information in it.

Every section that has the same name as the equivalent one in the last five reports (‘Background’ or ‘Latest figures’, say) will tell their brain to take shortcuts.

Every paragraph, sentence or heading that they’ve seen before signals that it can stay on autopilot and not engage.


Lucid moments

Obviously the reader won’t ignore the document completely (assuming they open it). They just won’t read it properly. And the more familiar the content, the more their brain will check out.

That means that all those hours you spent sweating over a hot keyboard could well be for nothing.

Occasionally something will shake them out of this trance-like state (like the thought that they really should be concentrating) and they will read what’s actually in front of them.

But those intermittent lucid moments will mean that they then take in only some of the information. And without the full picture, they may completely misinterpret what you wrote.

If you’ve ever had someone make a bizarre decision after reading one of your documents or emails, that may well be why.



A better way to write reports

Fortunately, there is a better way to write reports. To show you how, my colleague David Cameron has created a full report-writing playbook. And it’s just one part of a whole category on writing reports we have on our Knowledge Hub (which has categories for many other kinds of writing at work too).

Or, if you want more direct guidance from one of our experts, you might want to take a look at our training – we offer one-to-one coaching, courses for individuals to join and bespoke programmes for in-house teams. (Courses for teams are fully customisable to meet your needs.)

Get in touch if you’d like to chat about how we can help.


Main image credit: Unsplash+/Getty
Eye image credit: Amanda Dalbjörn
/ Unsplash

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