Wednesday, January 26, 2005

On Placing the Purpose

Many business writers make the mistake of thinking that writing to the point means to always place the purpose in the first sentence of the document. It is true that most internal documents you write—messages to people within your organization—should begin with the purpose because coworkers usually know each other well, accept their working relationship, and understand the need to quickly share the information that will help them get the job done. But this sort of writing can create tone problems if addressed to the wrong reader. For example, imagine writing an e-mail to the CEO of your company with the following direct opening:

You must hire a new associate for our department immediately.

That kind of attitude will not get you far because it appears brusque, arrogant, and demanding. You would probably want to start with the reason before stating the request, an indirect approach, as follows:

We have had several coverage problems in our department since Raymond Burris resigned and Camille Lamb was transferred. Because we have increased our client responsibilities and are facing a deadline on completing the new protocol of Project 1-2-3 during this period, we believe that the support of another experienced associate would help us meet the production commitments, which the department has traditionally fulfilled. Therefore, we request your consideration of hiring an additional associate.

Note how blunt the purpose is in the direct approach (usually a good idea, but not in this case) and how deferential it is in the indirect approach. Good writers know how to begin a message to the point; they also know when to delay the purpose until the reader understands the context. So follow these general guidelines when deciding where to place your purpose:

1. Place your purpose in the first sentence—unless you have a good excuse. (For a good excuse, read Point 2.)
2. Delay the purpose when giving bad news, when writing persuasively, and when the background information would help the reader better understand your message.

Remember to always state your purpose and to never bury it at the end of the message.

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