Plain business writing course (entry 12): Planning your document

We've finished the introductory part of the business writing course now, and will be going on to the first section of the main course: Planned.

After that will follow Lean (to do with how to write using a brief, concise style); Active (using the active rather than the passive voice); Intense (what tense to use); and, finally, Nice & Neat (formatting and otherwise tidying up your document).

Rule 11: Give your reader a structure to follow.

Click here and see how many numbers from 1 to 54 you can find in one minute...

I'm sure you'll agree that it would be rather handy to know how the numbers are arranged, not so? (Find the answer by clicking here.) In the same way, your reader looks for a structure in a document you create, whether it's a lengthy formal report or proposal, or a short email.

You can help your reader to quickly get the gist of what the document will be about by stating the main idea or ideas in your introductory paragraph.

Then, for longer documents, put headings above each new section. Each heading should be like a mini-summary of that section. Make sure your headings follow in a logical sequence; that will also ensure that the overall structure of your document makes sense.

End the document with a paragraph that once again sums up the document's main ideas, and points the way forward at the same time.

Here's an example:

Problems with implementation of new merchandising system

According to planning, we were supposed to implement a new merchandising system by end February. Various problems have meant that this date will have to be postponed, but we should still be able to implement the system before our busy season.

Steps to be taken to ensure the system is up before the busy season

We will not meet our target date for implementing the new system because departments have failed to coordinate with one another and because two vendors have failed to ship equipment on time. We can, however, be operational by 15 March if we take the following steps immediately:

First, we should encourage department heads to discuss the situation and to appoint a liaison to improve interdepartmental interaction. Second, we should contact the vendors who are supplying equipment to make sure new delivery dates are firm. As a result of taking these steps we can be up and running before our busy season.

Everything under control

I have convened a meeting of department heads to get the ball rolling, and Tom will confirm dates with the vendors. We will report back by the end of this week on the steps taken to coordinate departments and ensure vendor delivery. We will also then confirm whether we are still on track to implement end February.

To sum up: Give your reader a structure by summarising your document in your first and last paragraphs, and giving a heading to each section that summarises the content in that section.