Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 4

Excerpts The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo continue to take center stage on the WORDS ON THE LINE blog. The book follows the writing process in examining case studies based on authentic workplace situations.

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 4, “Revising”:

On-the-job documents need two elements to be clear in purpose:

  1. a purpose statement, which speaks for the entire document
  2. next steps, which transition the reader from the document to the desired results

The purpose statement should appear in a single sentence. I often call it the “mother sentence” because it is the highest-level sentence in the document, and it speaks for every other sentence in the document. Too often, writers weaken the power of the documents by making one or both of the following mistakes:

  1. They omit the purpose statement in the document because they believe that their subject line does the job by previewing the purpose. For example, they may write in the subject line, “Re: Recommendation for Weekly IT Team Meeting” but fail to state in the document “I recommend a weekly IT meeting.”
  2. They only imply the purpose, thinking that works just as well as an explicit one. For example, they may write, “A weekly meeting with the IT Team would benefit our group as well as IT” but not actually state their recommendation.

Although the purpose statement is only a single sentence, writers should not underestimate its power in guiding them toward creating a complete, clear, and consistent message.

The next steps are equally important because rather than close the document with a this-is-how-I-feel statement, it moves the idea along. Inexperienced writers make at least one of three common mistakes with their next steps:

  1. They omit them altogether, preferring just to summarize what they had just said. For example, they might write, “Therefore, a weekly meeting with the IT Team would benefit our organization.”
  2. They understate them, writing a vague statement like “Please call me if you have questions about this recommendation” which requires nothing of the reader.
  3. They misplace them. They may write, “I will forward to you a possible agenda for the first weekly meeting,” which seems effective; however, they may bury it in the middle of the document instead of placing it where it belongs—at the end.

Next steps are critical to the document because they serve as the call to action. Writers often express anxiety about writing next steps because they feel they must inappropriately demand something of their readers, who may be a level or more above them. But they should not think of next steps as something that their readers should do; maybe the writer can take the next steps himself. For instance, instead of ending with, “I look forward to your response to my recommendation,” why not close with, “I’ll call you on Tuesday to discuss this recommendation”?

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here: