Writing Letters

& Reports

This topic requires the reader to have read some of the other outlines, and hence have a working knowledge of eg, problem solving and the nature of communication - they will be treated but briefly here. Although the subject is particularly letters and reports, the same advice can and should be applied to email messages. Most businesses are bogged down in paper work, so you should make sure that all your communications are relevant and no longer than necessary.


Nature of Communication

Effective communication means that you have to convey to your recipient the exact message that you intend. Remember the children's game of whispering a message down a line of people - what comes out at the end is not usually what started at the beginning. Remember the last time you asked someone Do you understand? and he/she said Yes sir, Yes sir, three bags full sir - and then went off and did something completely different from your wishes?

Communication is similar to the problem scenario of Outline 7. You are the transmitter of the message [Home] which you have to get to another person [Work] - but there are barriers in the way: distance, language, status and position, bias and prejudice, conflicting priorities, information overload - to name but a few!

There are many means of conveying a message from one person to another, but in this case, you have chosen, or been directed, to write a letter or report - so there will be no chance of studying the body langauge of the receiver, and there will be a time delay between the dispatch of the message and your receipt of any feedback. Remember the tyranny of distance - what you write now, may well be misinterpreted in a day or so when it is received. The receiver may take time to reply, and then you can misinterpret her intention. Little misinterpretations when there is a time/distance separation can lead to big misinterpretations!

Hence, the message has to be well planned and expressed, if it is to achieve its purpose effectively.


Planning written communications


For any but the simplest of routine communications, you should carry out a problem solving exercise as in Outline 7:


For example, if you are writing a letter to someone who owes money, your problem is that you haven't got the money - therefore, your aim is to write such a letter that your chances of getting it will be improved - not to write a letter that will antagonise the recipient [pay up or else!] or be so lightfooted that it is ignored [Oh! He doesn't really mean it]. A second or third letter to the same person is a different problem and requires a different approach.


All reports require a thorough research phase before planning the actual writing - if 90% of your effort goes into the planning, then the writing should be easy. I presume you have enough sense to realise that the level of outcome and size of risk dictate the amount of effort you put into the planning phase.

The Final Planning Phase ?


Once the facts are gathered and you have made appropriate decisions as to the best alternative, you need to write down separately, all the items you wish to put in the communication. If the outcome and risk are small, then you may jot down items as a result of brainstorming or lateral thinking.

Re-ordering can be done by numbering or writing items down again on a separate sheet in the order in which you intend to write about them; or you can use cut and paste on a computer, or you can use the outlining facility of your word processor - the best way to work on a report. Some people prefer horizontal planning - listing main items across the top of a sheet and then putting relevant issues underneath. [An example of the vertical and horizontal approach is attached]

What is required is a logical approach - leading the reader along such a path that she can only agree with your conclusion!



Remember SEX [Spheres of Experience], your reader's strengths and weaknesses. Does he or she know as much about the subject as you do? Will he or she understand officialese [it is therefore proposed that notwithstanding a devolution of circumscribed attitudinal lacunæ] or will it be better in layman's terms - I suggest you come and see me as soon as possible. Does your boss always like to think he should have the biggest and the best, regardless of trivia such as efficiency and effectiveness, best practice, and budget control?

These factors determine not only the language and the style, but, where appropriate, the order in which you deal with the content of the letter.

Importance - considering that the important bit of most letters is usually in the last paragraph[s], what should go first what should go last? For example, if you have to look at several items and propose one of them [may be equipment to buy, or courses of action for someone to take] then you could consider discussing them by:

size - biggest or most expensive first/last? What is the psychology of putting the most expensive first if that is to be the final recommendation - the rest will seem cheap and nasty?

chronology - like a resume - give recent employment first or build up to it? If complaining about poor treatment or lack of action - detail original actions first? We need to buy a new photocopier - list faults of current model over time from when we bought it - or in reverse? What will have the most impact?

location - eg, buying a block of land - discuss those furthest from the CBD first and then show the advantages of being close? What if you want to recommend relocating to the suburbs?

type - the Canon does this, whereas the Xerox does that? Just don't list them in any old order - have a reason for what you do - to persuade the reader to do what you want!

Comparison and Contrast - give the advantages, then the disadvantages of each machine in order [which order will you choose?]. Then sum up by giving your conclusion before going on to the next machine.

One third approach - same as above except that you deal with the advantages of all machines first, then the disadvantages of all, then a final third sums up for each machine. This approach can get messy if you are not careful.


Transitional Devices

In the process of planning your written communications, revisit Transitional Devices, dealt with fully in Outline 20. In summary, transitional devices are words, phrases, clauses or sentences which serve to direct your reader along a smooth flow of argument and you should have a rough idea how you are going to do this before composing your letter or report - particularly the latter.

As a matter of style, you should avoid a simple system such as first, secondly, thirdly etc in a lengthy report as it would get very tedious. Use a variety of means, not necessarily at the beginning of every paragraph, but certainly at regular intervals so the reader knows exactly where you are leading. For example, the opening to this section refers you back to the last main heading to show that we are still talking about the planning stage.


Paragraph numbering systems

As an example of transitional devices, I am an advocate of numbering paragraphs in everything except the shortest of written business communications - so that readers may refer to specific items in their replies and so that you can make simple cross references within your document. Many word processing programs will do this for you automatically and you may use use a variety of numbering systems.

The legal system of decimal points is easy and straightforward, but can get messy if you have many sub sub sub paragraphs. Have a look at the attached page which shows the same passage with a couple of different approaches.

Remember that you can vary the size of type and use italics and bold to differentiate between paragraphs of lesser or more importance.

Outliners are parts of some word processing programs that allow you to plan your letter or report by starting with the main points, numbered as in these examples, and then add minor points of importance to them. The advantage is that you can rearrange blocks of text very easily and the program will automatically change the numbers of the paragraphs for you. If you don't like the numbering system, or don't want to use one at all, you can very easily delete the numbers when you have finished. I have always been astounded at how few people know how to use this very useful part of their programs!


Use of Headings

 Judicious use of headings also helps to make for easier reading and they are yet other examples of transitional devices. Imagine that your letter is going to have a list of contents that will be made up of your headings and sub headings - as a report undoubtedly will. The reader should be able to look at that list of contents and see how well you have expressed your views

Main headings. Main headings are often larger and in bold or underlined print. They can be in the centre or at the side - major sections are sometimes placed in the centre to make the sections stand out. A good rule of thumb is to have two blank lines above a main heading and one below, before the text..

Paragraph Headings. Paragraph headings can also be used, but the general principle is that of consistency - ie, once you use paragraph headings, you must continue to the next main heading as in these two examples here.

Separate Headings from Text. Headings are not part of the text and so you will see that they are repeated in the two paragraphs above - the one above should not start These can also be used - to ensure there is no ambiguity. Look at the many examples in my notes - let me know if you spot any discrepancies!


Graphic design

Finally, as the last point under the heading Planning Written Communications [and as another example of a transitional device], consider:


Books on communication in business give examples of different layouts and call them by such names as block, semiblock and so on. The names themselves are not important - you have to choose a style which appeals to you after due consideration of all possibilities. Have a good reason for writing the way you do and be consistent - bearing in mind, however, that varying purposes for writing may require varying styles: as an extreme example, the Defence Force has a very specific way of writing official correspondence - but a commanding officer would not use that style to write to parents to say their child had been seriously injured or killed.

White space and margins are most important. Letters and reports should look attractive and that means not being cluttered. Don't write to the edges of the paper, leave lines between paragraphs and sections, make sure headings stand out. Know how to change margins so that some paragraphs can be inset such as this one. Learn how to use all the tab settings on your computer. Will two pages with lines at 1.5 spacing look better than one full page at normal spacing?

Computers are not glorified typewriters. They are capable of so much more - you should test all the possibilities and use them to try out different formats. In particular, practise putting headings in the centre, paragraphs which are left aligned or justified, different fonts and styles [not too many in the same document, though]

Illustrations always add value, to reports in particular, but remember that the adage a picture is worth a thousand words is only true of a relevant picture! Put a logo on your letterhead, use tables and charts to clarify sets of figures, add a small spreadsheet, include a flowchart or timescale diagram. Make sure the illustration adds to the content and does not detract from it. Consider whether or not the illustration would be better placed as an appendix.

 Go to Structure of Written Communications

Go to Specifics for Letters

Go to Specifics for reports