In the article Effective Business Writing: The BEHQ Guide, I introduced The BEHQ Guide to Business Writing giving you a simple framework for clear, effective writing.
In the short BEHQ Guide I showed you how to:
- understand your focus,
- plan properly,
- structure your document,
- use appropriate writing style, and
- know how to self-edit.
Let’s now examine the planning phase of writing a business document, such as a short report.
In short report writing, your task is to inform your audience about a particular topic. Essentially you want to use facts and arguments to support your message in an ordered way. And you want to be persuasive, as I showed in Being Persuasive: How to win your audience over.
Here are three essential techniques that I often use when writing: brainstorming, researching, and asking questions.
Brainstorming allows you to freely write your ideas down. It's essential for clear, organized writing, and arguably it's the most fun. I find this pre-writing phase forces me to be creative. It’s fun but also challenging. When faced with a blank page, I’m never sure how things are going to turn out. However, as we’ll see later in this article, when looking at short report writing, there is a standard model to follow.
First, when brainstorming, I sometimes use free association to let my mind mull over the subject. I often use free association when I’m running outdoors. I may even share ideas with my running partner. Afterwards, I’ll jot down the ideas that jumped to my mind. The key takeaway for anyone looking to brainstorm is to be free and creative. Whichever environment makes you the most creative, take advantage of that environment and get out there and do it.
Second, I may refer to a good book, article, or website related to the topic. Amazon books, especially the book reviews, and YouTube are great places to search using keywords. Of course, I take notes on what I’ve learned either the old-fashioned way - writing them down on paper - or typing them into a Google document. Be sure to note the source of the information if you need to cite it in the business document itself.
Third, use the technique of mind mapping. This is a visual way to generate, structure and classify words, ideas, tasks or whatever relates to your topic. Instead of telling you HOW to mindmap, why don't I show you a mindmap (click to see it legibly, as the beauty is bigger than 500 pixels...)
Fourth, I often use an idea list. Keep a journal or a notebook on hand and write ideas as they come up. On the other hand, if you want to be more systematic, you can focus on some of these points when planning a short business report:
- cause and effect relationships
- solutions to the problem
- processes involved
- possible comparisons
- how the subject matter can be divided
- advantages and disadvantages
- warnings, tips or guidelines
- financial issues
- social, legal or other consequences
- possible recommendations or conclusions.
Finally, you could ask yourself questions about the topic. You might use the common information-gathering technique called the 5Ws:
- Who is it about?
- What happened?
- When did it occur?
- Where did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
There are many other questions you can ask yourself. The point is that if you are going to start writing well, you need to start thinking well. A significant part of any project is planning. Brainstorming ideas gives you a foothold, something to work with. Whenever you want to get something done, start with what you have and where you want to be. That gives your research, the next step, substance and allows you to explore relevant topics.
Once you have narrowed down your list of points, you can then figure out how to obtain the content details. Your research allows you to justify your point of view, create links and content, and generally appear intelligent. When writing anything you must have a frame of reality to work from. The research you do on the topics you've brainstormed will either justify or eliminate what you wanted to talk about. The research is essential to sounding and being intelligent and understood.
My number one research tool is the Internet. I also use books and reference materials at one of the nearby university libraries if I want something more academic, but the Internet is your go-to stop. In addition, if you want deeper sets of information, look for other information in textbooks, newspapers, scholarly journals, and magazines. If you find an important text for your research, the index and works cited is an excellent source for finding further information.
Another good technique is to get information from experts. I talk more about this in the next section, “Ask Questions.”
The Internet is a world unto itself. There is more material on any topic than you can ever read or listen to: web pages, blogs, PDF documents, ebooks, video and audio, press releases, discussions lists and so on.
You need to get good at taking notes, using direct and indirect quotes from a source, paraphrasing information in your own words, and summarizing the main ideas of your source. More about these points in future articles.
A key skill is being able to evaluate the truth of what you read. Worse than ignoring research and just writing opinion is to use false information to justify your opinions. Nothing gets you in trouble faster than printing false data. To help you become aware of your source, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- the reputation of the author or the website
- a list of references or citations that lead to good sources
- the professional quality of the tone, style and level of information
- the nature of the information offered: fact, opinion or propaganda
- the date of the material - generally the more recent the better
- the truth of the information.
I often use interviewing and surveying with subject matter experts or potential clients to gather information, data and opinions. Both tools require careful preparation to give me the best results. They require me to be good at asking the right questions to get what I am looking for.
In today’s high-tech communication world, there are many formats to choose from. I’ve done interviews in a variety of ways.
- Face-to-face: When sitting down with someone, I can adapt the interview to the person’s answers. I can either take notes because I write fast or record the interview with some recording equipment.
- By Telephone: I’ve used this technique many times with people from around the world or who are too busy to meet. I sometimes use a recording service to record the interview in MP3 and download it to my computer.
- By email: I really like this technique because it saves time for both me and the interviewee. It also gives me a document already in digital format.
- By Skype: If my subject matter expert has this tool, it combines all the advantages of face-to-face and telephone interviewing.
Another tool I have used in my consulting and teaching is the survey. It is an excellent way to get feedback from a large group of people.
I can survey people live, give them a paper-based version of the questionnaire, or use Internet tools such as Kwik Surveys or Survey Monkey. Some advantages of these websites is that they provide many different question types. The also tabulate the survey results. Really cool!
Here are some things to keep in mind when preparing a survey:
- Be clear about which group or groups you are targeting.
- Have an idea of how many people you intend to survey.
- Think carefully about the kinds of questions you would like to ask.
- Make your questionnaire just long enough to achieve your objectives.
I know this research can be stressful. But I am here to tell you that with the right structure, planning, purpose, and style, any writing you do can be quick, easy, effective, and even fun!
What have you learned from this effort? Is there anything else you'd like us to review?