Think of the things that take you most time at work, and which you feel should not take such a long time.
Unnecesary, badly planned meetings come to mind, going through your e-mail inbox every morning – specially after you have been on holiday. Presentations bring out your perfectionist panicky self because you need to defend them in front of an audience.
Reports anyone? Reports can be tiring in two ways: writing them and reading them. You probably have no control over how people write the reports you have to read, but maybe your reports are driving people nuts or putting them to sleep.
Let’s make a checklist of areas for improvement – which does not mean you need to tick all the boxes:
- Grammar and spelling mistakes. Yes, that gets in the way. You probably know it and now you wish your teachers, your parents and yourself had pushed you harder that way.
- General writing skills. starting from the basic “plan, think, write”. Unless it is a highly mechanical task or you have a template to follow in which you hardly change anything but numbers. In that case, it is not a report, it is a form! (And reading forms disguised as reports is really boring.
- Connected with the previous point, organization skills are fundamental.
Goals you should set yourself:
- People should be able to find specific information easily. Maybe they are looking at your report only to find a specific piece of data, and making them read the whole thing to find just a piece of data is cruelty. Creating an index with internal links is a great idea. There should be an index for the reports sections and also an index for graphs, charts etc. Or pile them up at the end of your writing. In any case, when looking at them becomes necessary to understand what you are talking about, always give a page reference.
- Unless you have done this thing a million times – in which case maybe you don’t need me! – go from rough to polished. What does this mean? Start by making an informal list of things you want to include in the report. One big mistake people make when writing a report is start writing directly. In contrast, if you have a clear plan, with clear goals, writing will be more smooth. Do not trust your mind to remember everything. Write. It. Down. That will help your mind focus and it will impact on the quality of your writing.
- Create a solid structure: down to paragraph level. If a paragraph is not in your planned structure it should not be in your report. Everything should have a function. Result: people will read only what is strictly necessary.
- Follow a logical sequence and don’t create loops. This is why it is so important to plan down to paragraph level: you start something, you finish something and everything about that specific point is together in that neat paragraph you just wrote. Also, if you need to add some information later, for example updating a report to include new developments, you will know where to put it and people who read the previous version will know here to find it. It will save you time and effort when writing and it will do the same for your readers.
- Remind yourself not to write sentences which are too long. It is better from all points of view to write sentences which are no longer than two full lines. Instead, force yourself to use connectors such as however, nevertheless, although… in order to connect sentences and not so much within sentences.
- Inspire yourself: if you find a report – or other documents such as a technical manual – that you found easy, pleasant to read – go back to it and pay attention to how it is written.
Feel free to make your comments about this post, and if you feel you might need professional help to take your report writing skills to the next level, contact me here.