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There’s a Write Way


From the confused email that leaves its recipient scratching their head to the over-long document that has the reader heading for the coffee pot, writing business documents can be a minefield. In this article Janet Basdell, who has designed her own system for business writing, passes on some essential tips to consider before you hit the keyboard.

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.

One way to make the writing process easier and ensure you communicate your message effectively is to use a tried and tested model.

The B.A.S.D.E.L.L. Business Writing Model can be applied 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
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.
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.

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

  • What does the client want?

  • When do they want it?

  • Where do they want it?

  • Why do they want it?

  • What is the delivery schedule?

  • What are the competitors’ strengths?

  • Who do I need to convince?

  • 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. 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.

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

    A is for Audience – consider who will read it
    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.

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

    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
    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.

    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.

    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”.

    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.

    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
    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.

    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.

    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.

    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?

    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? 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
    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.

    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
    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.

    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.

    * About the author: Janet Basdell is the founder and managing director of Plain Words and can be contacted on +44 (0)1635 202013, or [email protected].


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