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Business Writing Model – Updating Your Message

“Writing well in a business environment isn't just about good spelling and grammar” says Janet Basdell, Founder and Managing Director of Plain Words Ltd

Business documents to convey information

Business documents are written for a reason: to convey information, cause something to happen, influence a decision or win business.

All too often key messages are difficult to interpret because documents are badly structured and too wordy.

Think about the number of documents you read in a day and you'll appreciate how much time and money is wasted in writing and reading business information that just doesn't communicate.

B.A.S.D.E.L.L. Business Writing Model

One way to make the writing process easier and ensure you communicate your message effectively is to use a tried and tested model, like the B.A.S.D.E.L.L. Business Writing Model.

You can apply it to any business document from an email to a lengthy report, business case or bid.

B is for Brief – understand why you are writing the document

Earlier I said that business documents are written for a reason. It's amazing how many people start to write without understanding why.

Focussing on why you are writing will help you decide what to say and how to say it.

Ask for clarification – confirm your understanding in writing

If you have a written or verbal brief from someone else, don't make assumptions if anything is unclear.

Misinterpreting a requirement at this point means that your arguments, recommendations or conclusions may be invalid. Ask for clarification and confirm your understanding in writing.

Business Writing – ask these questions before you start

Whether you have a brief or not, make sure that you can answer these questions:

These questions are just as important for internal reports

You may feel that some of these questions are not relevant if you are writing an internal report or email. But if you substitute the words manager, director or colleagues for ‘client’ in the first point then the question works just as well.

Check out the competition

Likewise, competitors may not seem relevant (penultimate bullet) but if you are putting forward a business case for funding you are likely to be competing with your colleagues for the same pot of money.

Devise your own questions

These questions are a guideline. Devise your own and use them as a checklist before you start writing.

Discuss course content with staff

Delegates need to know that their management has expectations from the course that the delegates will need to meet on their return.

Set expectations by discussing the course content. Ask delegates to choose some key areas from the course outline that they are interested in learning about, to report back on and share with colleagues.

A is for Audience – consider who will read it

Tailor the content and writing style to the reader

When we write we concentrate on getting our thoughts down. Often this means we forget the reason we are writing, which is to communicate our thoughts to others. We must consider who is going to read our document and tailor the content and writing style accordingly.

Consider if your document is relevant to all readers

Most business documents have more than one recipient. Some may only read the parts that interest them, rather than the whole document.

When you are deciding what information to include you must consider if it is relevant to everyone or just some.

Can every reader understand the technical content?

If the content is technical, does everyone have the right background to understand the terminology or the concepts?

Writing style and tone

Think about the writing style and tone; should it be factual with no personal opinion (like an accident report) or persuasive and personal to the reader (like a bid)?

In a long document, it doesn't have to be the same all the way through.

Terminology should always be consistent but you should vary the style and tone according to who will read the sections.

S is for Structure – create the structure

Plan the structure of your document

When you've clarified the brief and considered your audience the next stage is to plan the structure of your document.

Even an email needs structure. They are often too long and rambling and have no ‘call to action’ at the end, leaving the recipients unsure if they need to do anything in response or not.

Devise the order of the document depending on the audience

First think about what you need to say and then devise the order in which to say it. The order often depends on the audience.

Think about what your audience already knows about the subject and try to link the new information to that. Start in general terms and then drill down to the detail, linking topics where possible and clearly showing where new, unrelated topics start.

Structure your document so it is easy to absorb the information

When we read, it's easier to absorb information and retrieve it later if we can ‘pigeon-hole’ it, or file it in our minds with other related information. A disjointed structure makes this difficult to do, resulting in confusion.

Like Eric Morecambe said when attempting to play a famous classical piece on the piano, “all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”.

Visualisation, mind maps and brainstorming

If you're the type of person who likes to visualise things, you may find mind maps™ useful to help you plan your document.

Another way is simply to write topics and sub-topics on post-it notes and stick them on a white board. You can move them around until you're happy the structure works and then take a photograph with your mobile or just write them down.

This is a good brainstorming technique if several people are working on a document together.

List topics using Word™ Outline View

If you prefer to list topics then Word™ Outline View is worth investigating. You can create an outline of your document and then ‘drag and drop’ topics around in the same way as with the post-it notes.

D is for Draft – write the first draft

Write quickly – words and sentence structure sound more natural

When writing we often spend too much time struggling to get the right word or phrase and this breaks the ‘flow'.

The best way is to write as quickly as possible. The words and sentence structure sound more natural if you do and will be easier to read.

If you get stuck, just put a few XXXs to mark the spot, skip over it and continue. It's tempting to resolve problems as you go along but it's much more efficient to keep going.

First design structure – start where you feel most comfortable

You don't have to start at the beginning of the document either. That's the beauty of designing the structure first; it enables you to start where you feel most comfortable.

It's often quite hard to write an overview, introduction or summary first so you might want to leave these until last

Write down ideas when they occur – place them later

If an idea occurs to you while writing, jot it down there and then. Put it in square brackets or highlight it in yellow. Don't try and figure out where it should go.

Then when you come to a natural break use the search feature in Word to find the XXXs and square brackets and see if you can resolve these outstanding issues.

E is for Edit – polish it

When you've written the first draft you can now begin to polish it.

Search for any remaining XXXs and fill in the blanks; the things you struggled to find words for before will now be easier to write.

Are the headings appropriate?

Look at each paragraph in turn. Does it describe a single concept or do you need to break it up? Does it need a ‘topic sentence’ at the start: a short sentence that encapsulates the paragraph? Are the headings appropriate?

Are the sentences too long?

Look at each sentence. Does it say anything useful? Is it too long? Will the audience understand it?

Look at the words and punctuation. Are there any unnecessary words? Could you change some of the complex words for more familiar ones? Have you overdone the passive voice?

Check for punctuation errors

Have you eliminated common punctuation errors that would make your document look unprofessional?

L is for Leave it – put it to one side for a while then re-read it with a fresh eye

Sleep on it!

When you're working on a document you can get very close to it – so close that you can't see fundamental errors. If you can put it to one side for a while, even if it's just overnight, you'll be amazed what a fresh eye picks up.

Ask a colleague to read your document

If time is a luxury you can't afford, ask a colleague to read the document for you. Alternatively, copy the document and change the way it looks – make the font larger or smaller – and print it if you're used to viewing it only on screen.

Just by making it look different and reading a printed page rather than the screen will make it appear fresh.

L is for Learn – get feedback from the readers: what worked and what didn't

Get feedback from your audience

If a document or email doesn't get the response you hoped for, don't just shrug your shoulders and move on. It could be that you failed to communicate your message to your audience.

If you can, ask the audience what worked and what didn't for them. Sometimes the answers will surprise you. Re-use ideas that worked and learn from your mistakes.

Ask the client why you won a bid

If you've ever lost a bid you will no doubt have asked the client why. But, have you ever asked the client why you won a bid? It's just as useful to know what made your bid better than the competition's.

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