Writer: Robert Garran
How many reports or articles have you read where it takes an awfully long time for the author to get to the point—or perhaps when you’re not even sure what the point is by the time you’ve finished the piece?
I once spent a week working with a team who were writing a report on a complicated welfare program that had worked out badly. Their task was to write a brief for a minister recommending what to do next to solve the problem.
The members of the team knew the program backwards. They knew the history, they knew the key players, they knew all the moving parts, they knew what had been tried in the past to make it work, they had some good ideas about where they wanted to end up and what they wanted to do next.
But the draft report they’d written was a complete mess. They were trying to do too much in the report, and they didn’t know where to start—in two senses of the word. They didn’t know how to begin tackling the report, and they didn’t know what they should say at the start of the report.
We spent a day working through the issues to clarify the message that we needed to convey to help the minister make a decision. We started our report with that goal, and the rest of the report was structured to support that overriding purpose. Anything that didn’t support that primary aim was cut.
Working out your purpose will help you figure out what it is you want to write, and just as importantly, to communicate that to your readers.
In my work over many years as a journalist and public servant I encountered many pieces of writing that weren’t clear about their purpose.
Some of those not-clear pieces had half an idea, but took a while to get to the point. Others had so many ideas it wasn’t obvious what was important and what was not. Often, there was an idea in there waiting to burst out, but the writer hadn’t been clear enough about what was most important. Sometimes the piece started with one idea, but ended up focusing on something else.
One of the biggest problems is that although a writer thinks they have a clear idea of the purpose of a piece, they haven’t nailed precisely what they really want to say. The purpose they have identified might be too general, too focused on the past, or too focused on a diagnosis of a problem instead of focusing on a solution.
It is worth spending time and effort to work out your purpose.
Once you have done that, two steps will help make that clear to your readers:
- Sum up your purpose in a single sentence.
- Put that sentence at the start of the report.
This is not the way many people write, and there are times when it’s not the best way to structure a piece of writing. But in government and business, it’s almost always the best approach.
One big benefit of starting a piece of writing with your purpose is that it forces you to think about what your purpose actually is! That might seem a statement of the bleeding obvious. But often people start writing without knowing their purpose. And sometimes when they’ve finished they still haven’t worked it out. What hope does the reader have?