Thursday, February 24, 2011

Report writing: reasons to do it well

Report writing: reasons to do it well
Tim North,

You probably don't have a burning desire to write reports.

Nonetheless, you've ended up having to write them. There's a natural tendency to want to get the darn things written and off your desk as soon as possible. There are all sorts of reasons for this:

* Writing can be a pain in the behind.

* You didn't take this job to become a writer.

* You've got a dozen other "real jobs" that need doing.

* You're just having one of those days (or weeks or months).

* It's Friday afternoon.

* etc.

We can all identify with these feelings. Still, to use a cliche, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing *well*.

Now that's not just hollow sentiment. There are good reasons for taking your writing responsibilities seriously. Here are a few of them:


Over time, what you write -- and the way you write it -- will be remembered, for better or worse. If you succumb to the "just get it done" or the "near enough is good enough" schools of thought then, over time, the people you write for will start to judge you accordingly.

Conversely, if you go the extra yards and do a good job on your reports, letters and memos, that too will be remembered; and it will influence your reputation accordingly.

Remember: you are what you write.


The reputation that we just discussed has a flow-on effect: it influences your credibility. Consider two staff members:

* Person A doesn't like writing. She has a reputation for writing   reports that have to be sent back or fixed. They don't always   answer all of the things they were supposed to; facts sometimes   contain errors; material is inappropriately cut and pasted from   earlier reports without change; the layout isn't in the   approved style etc.

* Person B also doesn't like writing. Still, she has a reputation for writing reports that don't need to be sent back or fixed; they answer all of the things they were supposed to; the facts presented are well checked; her reports are well written and well presented etc.

An incident occurs, and each person provides a different written version of events. Which account will have the greater credibility?

Regardless as to who is *right* in this particular case, it's human nature that a person with a reputation for well written, accurate reporting will have his or her written statement awarded a greater level of credibility.

This credibility may not just be extended to his or her written work. People may come to judge your character and work ethic on the basis of a history of well-written submissions.


When you write reports (or letters or memos), you're often doing so in response to a specific request. It may often seem that the people who make these requests are completely unaware of how much work it takes for you to write the reports or how inconvenient they can be.

This won't always be the case though. At least some (perhaps most) of the people who ask for such reports do understand that you'll have to work on them. And some (hopefully most) will appreciate the effort you put in to submitting a good report.

One day, you might want something from them.

If you have a history of submitting well written reports that are right the first time, a good manager will recognise this effort. When you next need a favour, hopefully your efforts will be remembered and your request treated in a favourable light.

Bottom line: Time spent writing well is not wasted. You get the benefits described here, and your employer gets better reports. It's a win-win situation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Persuasive writing: the carrot-and-stick strategy

Persuasive writing: the carrot-and-stick strategy

This article presents a five-step process for writing (or speaking) persuasively. It involves presenting a problem, the consequences of the problem, a solution, benefits of the solution and a call to action.

Certain types of writing involve doing your utmost to persuade the reader to accept your recommendations. Business examples of persuasion include:

* arguing for more staff;

* assuring the boss of the merits of a new project;

* convincing management to continue with a worthwhile program;

* encouraging your manager to investigate a safety hazard;

* justifying a budget increase;

* promoting your innovative business strategy;

* selling a product or service; and

* supporting your position over that of others.

There's a five-step process that I call the carrot-and-stick strategy. It can be very effective in such situations.

The strategy is this: the following five elements should be in *every* attempt to persuade:

1.  A clear statement of the reader's problem.

2.  A clear statement of the consequences for the reader of not solving the problem.

3.  A clear statement of your proposed solution to the problem.

4.  A clear statement of the benefits to the reader of solving the problem.

5.  A clear request for a specific action; e.g. "Please sign and return this application".

Let's look at these five elements in further detail.


If you want to get a sleeping teenager out of bed, simply telling him or her to get up may be only marginally effective. Pointing out that the house is on fire is likely to be far more so. Why? The first approach may be perceived as just another annoying request for compliance. The second, though, presents a problem: their problem.

So, if I want to persuade someone to do something then the first step in the carrot-and-stick strategy is to convince him or her that they have a problem that needs to be solved.

Little other than self-interest motivates some people; others can be paralyzed by indecision and only act when compelled. No matter the situation, no matter the person, one of the best ways to put people in the mood to act is to convince them that they have a problem.

In an unsolicited case or proposal this is especially important as the reader may be completely unaware of the existence of the problem, and it will be your job to walk them through it.

Of course, some cases and proposals will be solicited, in which case the reader presumably already knows that there's a problem that needs solving. In such cases, you may need to spend less time explaining it to them.

Never skip this step, though, as the reader may have forgotten the problem since you last discussed it. Alternatively, she or he may be underestimating how severe it is.


Having demonstrated to the reader (in whatever depth is necessary) that they have a problem, the second step in the carrot-and-stick strategy is to outline the dire consequences to them of not acting.

List and discuss all the problems and threats that are faced if the problem is not addressed: financial, environmental, P.R., social, I.T., everything. This is the stick element of the carrot-and-stick strategy. You're (figuratively) beating him or her with all of the dreadful things that might happen if nothing is done to address the problem.

Not surprisingly, this is a very persuasive technique for putting someone in a frame of mind where they're ready -- and probably quite desperate -- to find and apply a solution.


Now that the client is in a receptive frame of mind, you reel them in by describing your solution to their problem.


Having described your proposed solution, you now dangle the carrot by waxing lyrical about all of the benefits and features that it provides.  Describe all of its good points: financial, environmental, P.R., social, I.T., everything.

See what we've done in these first four steps? We've established a need, described the solution to that need, and then lauded the benefits of that solution. This carrot-and-stick strategy is a highly effective way of persuading people to say yes.


Commercials often use phrases such as "Act now!" and "For a limited time only". Used-car salesmen are notorious for phrases such as "I can only do this deal today". These are all examples of closes: lines that try to get you to act immediately on the proposal that's in front of you.

The final element of the carrot-and-stick strategy is to close with a specific request for action. You've presented your case, and the reader is motivated to act. It would be a shame to have gone to all this trouble only to waste it now.

Make a specific request, now, while you've got their interest. For example:

* Please sign and return the attached application.

* Please alter the budget accordingly.

* Please call Jane at Human Resources and authorise her to place the ad.

* Please phone Bill and express your support for this idea.

* etc.

End with a firm and clear request for some immediate action, or you run the risk that the reader will put your case or proposal to one side. You want them to act now, while it's fresh in their minds, so tell them what you want them to do.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Less" or "fewer": Is there still a difference?

"Less" or "fewer": Is there still a difference?
Tim North,

A correspondent of mine recently had this to say:

I'm appalled at the increasing use of less when fewer would be more appropriate. I was taught that if you could count them (people at a meeting) you used "fewer"; if you couldn't count it (sugar) you used "less."

It seems that the trend is to use less for everything.  I can't wrap myself around using "less" when "fewer" seems so right to me.

She asked me to comment.

The traditional rule is indeed to use "fewer" with things that can be counted. For example:

* Fewer than ten minutes remain.
* Fewer people go to church now.
* Fewer than a hundred tickets were sold.
* Drink fewer glasses of alchohol.
Traditional usage says that we use "less" in other situations. For example:

* Less time remains.
* Church attendence is less than it was.
* Ticket sales were less than last year.
* Drink less alchohol.

It gets more complex though. The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to add:

You can use "less than" before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: "less than three weeks", "less than $400", "less than 50 miles".


Still with us? Heritage continues:

You can sometimes [When exactly? - TN] use "less" with plural nouns in the expressions "no less than" and "or less". Thus you can say "No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter" and "Give your reasons in 25 words or less".

Who's still clear on when to use "fewer" and when to use "less"? Not many huh? I'm not surprised. Neither am I.  :-)

So now we come to the meat of the issue. Has this traditional usage become too complex to bother with? Can a distinction that's too subtle or too complex ever be more trouble than it's worth?

Now that's a genuinely interesting linguistic question. (Okay, I can see you rolling your eyes at that. It's actually a remarkably *dull* question for anyone who has a life, but we're talking about linguists and grammarians here!)

Rather than get into a knock-down debate on the subject, let me just say this. Regardless of any linguistic reasons for keeping such a distinction, actual, day-to-day usage *is* changing. Fewer (or is that "less"?) people are making such distinctions.

Language changes, and it does this whether we want it to or not. Just eavesdrop on a group of teenagers. Do you understand everything they say? No. Neither do I. Neither did our parents.

Language changes, and one of the ways it changes is that people get lazy about pedantic distinctions. I'm not saying that it's right or desirable, merely that it's inevitable.  :-)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hyphens made easy

Hyphens made easy
Tim North,

Your readers judge you on the way you write.

This applies whether you're writing advertising copy, a college or business report, a web site, or the next great novel; and it's these judgements that will determine the success or failure of your venture.

For example, would you buy a book if you flipped through the pages and saw spelling errors? Probably not. Such errors would detract from the credibility of what was written. Similarly, the Internet is full of web sites offering to tell you how to write fantastic advertising copy that will triple your sales.

The irony is that most of these sites look like they're written by an illiterate. You know the ones: spelling errors, poor grammar, ridiculous punctuation, and way too many exclamation marks.

Good, solid writing skills are necessary whether you're writing for business, college or fiction. In this article, I'm going to look at a frequently misunderstood area: hyphens.

Yes, it sounds dull; I admit it. Wait, though, before being tempted to put this article to one side, and test yourself with these real-world questions.

  Q1. Why do many dictionaries list "infra-red" with a hyphen, but "ultraviolet" without?

  Q2. Why does only the first of the following sentences need a hyphen?
          We will discuss public-safety issues.
          We will discuss issues of public safety.

  Q3. Which of these is the preferred spelling:
          co-ordinator or coordinator?
          mid 1990s or mid-1990s?
          selfesteem, self-esteem or self esteem?

Are you certain of all your answers? If not, read on, and we'll cover some simple guidelines for using hyphens. (You'll also find the answers to the questions above.)

1. The prefix "self" is nearly always hyphenated; e.g. self-esteem, self-image, self-conscious.

2. When the prefix "ex" is used to mean former, it is always hyphenated; e.g. ex-wife, ex-premier, ex-treasurer.

3. Most of the time, other prefixes don't need a hyphen; i.e. most dictionaries list "coexist" not "co-exist."

4. We sometimes use a hyphen after a prefix, though, if the main word has only one syllable; e.g. infra-red. By comparison, ultraviolet doesn't need a hyphen (according to most dictionaries) because the main word is not one syllable.

5. Use a hyphen after a prefix in order to separate a doubled vowel; e.g. pre-empt, de-emphasize. There are some exceptions, though. Many modern dictionaries spell "cooperate" and "coordinate" without hyphens.

6. We tend to hyphenate compound words only if they come before a noun, not after. For example, we write "a public-safety issue" with a hyphen, but "an issue of public safety" is written without one.

7. Use a hyphen after the prefix if the main word has a hyphen of its own; e.g. non-customer-focussed approach.

Armed with these simple guidelines, you'll soon be using hyphens like an expert. Good luck!  :-)

How formal should your business writing be?

How formal should your business writing be?

Do you write business letters or other business correspondence? If so, think about how these questions apply to your situation:

1.  When is it appropriate to use first-person pronouns like I, we, me, us, my and our?

2.  When is it appropriate to use contractions like it's, isn't, we'll and let's?

If we were e-mailing a personal note to a friend, most of us would use both first-person pronouns and contractions. If we were writing a report to be sent to a senior executive, we might use neither. So the question arises: How do we decide when to use them and when not to?

First-person pronouns and contractions can affect the tone of our writing in various ways (both good and bad) as shown in the following table:

     informal               formal
     disrespectful          respectful
     natural sounding       stiff, wooden, pompous
     inviting, warm         distant, cold, official

One common practice in business writing is to always avoid first- person pronouns and contractions because it's believed that they're too informal or too disrespectful. For example, many business writers will always write "the department" instead of "I", or "it is" instead of "it's".

While there are, in some situations, good legal reasons for writing "the department" instead of "I", do you do it too often?

Similarly, is it always necessary to avoid contractions in your writing?

My own feeling is that always avoiding first-person pronouns and contractions can result in unnecessarily formal writing that may sound unnatural or wooden. People don't usually speak this way. They speak using both first-person pronouns and contractions, so I offer the advice that in many (but not all) situations it's appropriate to write it the way you'd say it.

Business writing is often highly stylized and rather pompous. For example: "Pursuant to our recent communication the department writes to inform you that...". This can leave your readers feeling alienated or annoyed. This is particularly true if you're writing for the general public.

A useful strategy is to try reading your document out loud. If you find yourself saying things that are different from what you've written (e.g. you say "let's" but you wrote "let us"), that's a clue that your writing may be a bit too formal.

Of course, there can be good reasons to avoid first-person pronouns and contractions. For example:

* You're deliberately trying to be highly formal such as when you   reprimand someone.

* You're writing to someone more senior and wish to show clear respect and deference.

* Your manager just insists on it. :-)

On balance, though, in most writing, I think that first-person pronouns and contractions are quite acceptable. If you write in a natural-sounding fashion, you'll be more easily understood, more personal and will seem less contrived.