Writing reports

What is a written report?

Reports need to be written with impact in mind – and should grab and hold the reader’s attention.  Reports should be clear, concise, well formatted, well written, but still allow room for individuality. The reader should know exactly what you want them to do after they have read the report.       

 Tips 

  • Write in plain English using everyday words, and use as few words as possible. Use short, uncomplicated words. Don’t assume the reader knows – you might be an expert, but the reader may not be.
  • Write in the third person – eg The organisation is……not I or we are doing
  • Use 12 point text in the ‘Arial’ font
  • Do not use slang, jargon or clichés
  • Wherever possible, do not use acronyms as they stops the flow – think of alternative words to use instead
  • Do not use lists of bullet points that aren’t referenced – use (i), (ii) or (a), (b) etc
  • Use short sentences – no more than fifteen to twenty words to maintain clarity
  • Stick to one main idea in each sentence
  • Use capital letters only when absolutely necessary
  • The longer a report, the less likely it is to be read
  • Check it for content accuracy and grammar – does it make sense? Read it out loud and reword any clumsy sentences. Get someone you trust with good English skills to read it. 
  • Proofread it manually, but after doing it with your computer.
  • Finally – make your report look attractive – well-formatted, use colour if it adds clarity, use tables, sub-headings, bullet points – make the reader want to read it

A good report demands good preparation and good planning

The key to writing a good report is good preparation and good planning. Thinking about the structure of the report, is a key factor in ensuring the report has impact. If you have spent a long time investigating a subject, you may have a lot of raw information in no particular order. You need to sort the information and look for the key items and then start jotting things down as headings. You can then start to sort these headings into the structure of the report. Don’t just write down everything you know about the subject – be selective – a report is not a showcase for your knowledge. 

Define the purpose of the report so that you are clear about:

  • Why you are writing it – if you are not clear about why you are writing the report, or its exact purpose – get a clear brief in writing. Report writers can’t be expected to second-guess what’s in someone else’s mind. Define the purpose of the report in one sentence and concentrate on the main issue(s).
  • What should be included – arrange the information logically, so the reader can follow your argument/information. Make it look interesting – ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, so try to think of places where a diagram, table or a graph would make the text easier to understand. Use colour to add impact.
  • What should be left out – they do not need to know everything, unless it is important contextual information. Think – what do they know already? 
  • Who your readers are – think about what they actually want – and the shorter the better as they are busy people
  • What they should do once they have read the report

So, how should I start?

The three main sections of a report are the summary, the recommendation and the detailed information.

1. The summary

The summary should be the first section of the report, but it should be the last of the three main sections to be written. 

The summary is a precis of the main report and the reader should be able to glean all they need to know from this section without needing to read any more of the report. This section is vital as it saves time for busy people. Its contents should be sufficient for a layperson to be able to understand why the report has been written. It should contain the key points that are to be considered, the implications arising from them, the conclusions and the recommendations.  The summary is not just a ‘purpose of report’ to be written in one sentence.  The summary should ideally be no longer than 2 sides of A4 and the paragraphs in the summary should be numbered.

2. Introduction

This section should explain the purpose of the report so that the reader knows why it has been prepared and what decision they are expected to make. This should be followed by a very brief outline of the structure the report will follow, which makes it easier for the reader as they know what to expect. 

3. The Recommendation

This should answer the question ‘Now I’ve read the report, what do you want me to do?’ The recommendation should flow logically from the information contained in the report, and should tell the readers exactly what decisions and / or actions are required of them.

A recommendation should not be made unless a case for it has been made in the main body of the report and precised in the summary.                                                                                                        

4. The detail or supporting information          

The detail or supporting information is likely to be the longest section of the report. It may consist of a series of numbered paragraphs following the style of the report template. However, it can be divided into logical sections organised under headings and sub-headings. If there are four options to consider in a report – consider using sub-headings or bullet points to add clarity and to reduce the amount of text.  Make sure the text also matches the sub-headings – if you say you are going to cover something, then do so. Use hard facts and figures, evidence and justification, but be concise. 

Do not hinder the flow and clarity of your argument with excessive detail.  Try to anticipate likely questions and answer them.

Do not use vague terms to cover ignorance, or lack of knowledge – in other words no bull!

Just before the end of the report, re-emphasise the key ideas and then draw the report to a logical conclusion.

The dos and don’ts of presentations

If you’ve been sked to give a talk or a presentation, the chances are you will be feeling nervous. This is very natural. The best way of calming down is to  be prepared and be in control. You have been asked to give the presentation, so your audience think you know more than they do.

Why are you giving this presentation?

What is the purpose of your speech? Ask yourself why you are giving the presentation to this particular group of people and be clear in your objective. The purpose of your speech will affect your delivery. Are you trying to persuade – are you looking for ‘buy in’? Is your purpose to instruct – and do you know enough? If your purpose is to inspire, and are you enthusiastic? If your purpose is to entertain, is this naturally you?

Who’s in your audience?

Find out the size of your audience, its background and level of understanding of the topic, who else is speaking on the same or similar subject (that will help you manage potential duplication or conflict of information presented). . Tailor your presentation to meet your objective and your audience. Make sure your subject is not too broad or too specialised for the audience. Be clear about what you want to achieve and what you want them to remember as key messages.

Where will you deliver the speech?

Check the venue and what equipment is available. Check that your visuals are suitable. Give yourself enough time to set up the equipment and make sure it is working. People need to be in receptive mode, so you need to check that the venue has the appropriate feel, ie is it too formal or not formal enough? The temperature needs to be comfortable and the seating needs to be arranged appropriately and also needs to be comfortable. If you are giving talks to older people, remember that they like it to be warmer than you do. Don’t focus all your attention on the staging and presentations – try being a guest. Walk though the arrival, refreshment and breaks. Familiarise yourself with the location of toilets and fire exits. Minimise distractions, otherwise key messages can be lost.

Think about the size and layout of the room. In a large room you will need to project your voice or you may need a microphone. Think about the acoustics. It is notoriously difficult to be clearly heard in a village hall, a church or a room with high ceilings and you may get echoes.  On the other hand, carpets and thick curtains muffle sound, so once again, you will need to project your voice. 

How long should it be?

Ensure you know how long you are expected to speak – and stick to that time. Remember we speak at up to 180 words a minute in conversation. Presentations should be given at an average of 100 words a minute.

Be aware of how long you have been allocated and make sure you stick to your timings, allowing time for questions if appropriate. This is particularly important if you are one of a number of speakers.

Most people find it difficult to concentrate for longer than 15 to 20 minutes so be ruthless with your content and keep presentations as short as possible. But, remember, the shorter it is, the more preparation is required to get the key points across. Allow enough time for people to ask questions as well as time to build rapport at the beginning. Put things as succinctly as possible and explain why the audience should be interested

When will you be speaking?

You need to think about your own comfort and that of your audience. If it’s summer, then you may have to open windows if possible which may mean more distractions from outside noise. Your audience will have a much shorter attention spa if they are uncomfortable.  Also think about the time of day you give your speech – the last slot in the day – ‘the graveyard slot’ is very unpopular as people are eager to leave or go home. If you are ‘on’ after lunch as well, then people are more sluggish and less able to concentrate, so you need to be livelier. Some people even doze off to sleep after lunch!

What is the content of your speech?

How to structure a presentation

First, brainstorm your ideas without evaluation or structure. Then select three or four key points, bearing in mind your objective and the needs and concerns of your audience. Think about your priorities – things you must say, should say and could say. Structure your material – think of the TV news – headlines (beginning), news in full (middle) and news round up (end). Grab attention at the beginning, promise great things to come and get them thinking. Use the middle to develop the argument, present the evidence and demonstrate the results. Structure ideas logically so they are easy for you to remember and for your audience to follow. Brief bullet points can provide you with a guide but avoid putting the entire presentation onto slides. Don’t waste the end: aim for a finish, not a stop.

Your script should have three basic sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. It should be written in plain English and contain examples to illustrate your key points.

Introduction: Tell them what you are going to tell them.

This section should be brief and clear – setting the agenda for your presentation. You should introduce your key points and engage the audience – excite them about what you plan to say. Remember to thank the chairman or whoever introduced you to the audience. 

Body: Telling them.

This is the heart of your presentation. Develop your key points and argument logically; use supplementary information, examples, statistics or illustrations. You will make most use of any audio-visuals in this part of the presentation. Make sure that any visuals you use to support what you are saying are legible for the audience – nothing too complicated or too small to read. Be careful not to stand where you will obstruct the view of any member or section of the audience.

Conclusion: Telling them what you told them.

Here you should draw together all the key points you have made in the body of your presentation. Use it to remind the audience and to recap. Reinforce your key messages so they are remembered. The closing section should be about the same length as the introduction.  Do not introduce new ideas at this point of your speech.

How will you deliver the speech?

Rehearsal and delivery

You will lose your audience within minutes if your delivery is poor. Prepare your final script in a large typeface (14 or 16 point ) onto card – A5 or A4. Print the script out in a large typeface so that it is easy to see at arm’s length. Number the cards and use a treasury tag to hold them together, rather than staples.

Keep your script and information simple with no more than four clear messages that the audience will remember. Always compose your speech in advance. Never be tempted to speak “off the cuff”. Structure your script into your clear subject areas with headings and then incorporate minor points. Think about the order of presenting information – is it making sense? Does it follow a natural argument?

Then present it out loud. Does it work in spoken form? A document that reads well on paper is rarely a good script for presentation. In a script you may need to use the same word several times to reiterate a point or even to repeat yourself.  You may also find that perfectly coherent sentences on paper, sound complicated out loud and will need to be simplified.

Research has shown that the average person in a conference audience has an attention span of up to six minutes – three if the presenter is not engaging! So, try to introduce a new element to your presentation every three to six minutes. This could be a new subject, a new visual, or a change of tone.

Refine your first draft script, print it, stand up, check the clock and present it out loud again. If you trip over any phrases or words, mark them and carry on with the presentation until the end. Check the time to see how close you are to the target time.

Unless you had an audience for this run through or are a very experienced presenter, you will have read out the script considerably faster than you should in front of an audience. Remember, too that this run through was without visuals that will also slow you down and add to the presentation time. Check at this stage that you really do have no more than four key messages in your presentation Now put your script away for 24 hours and look at it again tomorrow for final edits.

Pre-presentation nerves are normal. To control them requires confidence in what you plan to say and in your visuals. Try not to read from your script – use it to prompt you. Memorise the first two or three lines from your script to ease you into the flow of the presentation. If you are only using notes, then consider writing out the first two or three lines in full.

If using a screen for slides, overheads or computer projection of visuals, allow those visuals to act as punctuation to your voice – do NOT turn from the audience to the screen. Make eye contact with your audience. If using a flipchart, look from the audience to the chart and back again while speaking, as this will guide attention between you and the information.

Be enthusiastic about your subject! If you sound bored, your audience will quickly become bored.

Keep your breathing deep and controlled. Shallow breathing will affect the texture of your voice and cause you to rush and sound nervous. ‘Punctuate’ your speech. Pay attention to commas, keywords, paragraph changes and changes in tone. Do not be afraid of pauses – they may feel like long silences to you but for the audience they are part of the punctuation. Use your tone of voice to convey important messages. For example, if you have an important point to make then allow the audience a brief two or three seconds of silence to digest it before moving onto your next point.

Using Aids

Visual aids are excellent tools for adding variety and interest to your presentation, however, if we use them excessively, they can detract away from the message we are trying to convey. Use audio-visuals aids to support your presentation – not as a substitute for it.  Keep copy short on any visual so it is clearly and quickly legible for the audience. If you want them to read what is one screen, give them time to do so. Visuals should illustrate, enhance and punctuate what you are saying. Write them in bullet format from your script.

What do we have available?

  •  Flip chart
  • Whiteboard
  • Powerpoint
  • Video
  • Props
  • Handouts
  • Music – obviously not visual, but can be effective

 Consider some Dos and Don’ts…

  •  Flip chart / Whiteboard – *Do write clearly

                                                   *Do use bold colours

                                                   *Don’t use highlight

                                                   *Do check spelling

 

  • Powerpoint –                         *Do have fun

                                                            *Do use colour

*Don’t crowd slides – keep copy brief and always readable – use brief bullet points or brief sentences

* If you want them to read from the slide, give them time to do so

 * Don’t use too many animation or sound effects – it’s irritating and distracting

*Don’t allow the visual style, formats and presentation templates to dictate or override your content

* Use your notes to refer to, but don’t read them word for word – focus on your audience

 Video –                                   *Do use short clips

                                                            *Don’t allow it to dominate your presentation

 

  • Props / handouts –               *Don’t give out and then continue talking

                                                            *Do allow time for audience to look at

Make it clear to the audience that the slides are in the handout so they don’t need to make notes.                            

Whatever visual aids you use to enhance your presentation, remember, it is you the audience is learning from.  People don’t ‘buy’ from machinery – they buy from people – use yourself  to deliver your message with assistance from the technology and your presentation will be more effective.

Other key aspects of public speaking

1. Vocabulary

A good speech will use a wide range of vocabulary. The choice of words should be suitable for the audience to understand – ie plain English and no use of jargon unless the audience can understand it. Be careful with grammar and spelling on visual aids, as errors reduce your credibility and can jar on the audience – and, for this reason, it’s very important to fact-check everything closely. .

 2.    Use of the voice

You need to be able to project your voice so that the audience can hear and also be aware of the tone of your voice. Analyse your voice – how does it sound? You want it to sound friendly, sincere, strong, confident, persuasive and interesting. You don’t want it to sound monotonous, aggressive or antagonistic. It is essential that you vary the pace of your speech and the tone to keep the audience interested. You should pause at appropriate times – ie when punctuation marks appear, or for dramatic effect – eg after a joke. Pausing helps your breathing and ensures you don’t speak too quickly and can help you stick to your time. Watch your pronunciation of awkward works and make sure your enunciation is clear. Don’t worry too much about how you sound though – the most important thing is confidence and delivery.

 3.    Body language

Audiences warm to a speaker who has passion for the topic and enthusiasm is infectious. It’s almost impossible to believe someone who stands with their head and shoulders down, clinging onto cue cards for dear life and making no eye contact with the audience. At best, the audience will switch off, at worst they’ll think the speaker is lying. Stand tall with relaxed shoulders, arms and hands open with an easy friendly smile and lots of eye contact. Make eye contact with individual members of the audience, but don’t fix on one person as this makes them feel very awkward. Try to maintain eye contact with your audience – and this means reading your speech as little as possible – and this takes practice.  In a larger audience, make sure you look round the room and don’t focus just on one side of the room, as the rest of the audience feels excluded. Good eye contact is very important in the first few seconds of the speech. If you watch people on the back and they lean forward, then they probably can’t hear you and so need to raise your voice. Also establish eye contact with the front of the audience and smile as this helps to build rapport.

itch your presentation towards the back of the room, particularly in large rooms. Don’t fiddle with your hair, glasses, coins, jewellery etc as this is a distraction and betrays nervousness. A good stance is really important as it makes you look confident, stops you swaying around and enables you to make good strong gestures.

You should use a few well-chosen gestures to improve your speech if possible. These gestures must be natural and graceful and should support what you are saying. Gestures can add impact to a speech and make the speaker seems relaxed and confident. You should avoid irritating mannerisms like wringing your hands, playing with hair/glasses/jewellery and other distracting habits such as rubbing your nose/ears, swaying, saying um and ah a lot, and  clearing your throat a lot. Ask someone to watch you practising your speech and to tell you what your annoying habits/mannerisms are, so you can try and avoid them.

 4.    How to jazz up the delivery?

Stories to illustrate your points help personalise facts, build credibility and capture interest. Preparing cue cards and using props as reminders are all ways to avoid stilted, formal, monotonous presentations. But don’t use props just for entertainment – they need to support your message. The success of props depends on the links you make to the key points. It’s better to leave your audience with a lasting image towards the end of your presentation. Keep it short and simple.

5. Attention grabbing figures

Tell the audience the first, the biggest, the fastest, the most memorable figures first and concentrate on delivering these in the presentation, giving the supporting facts as handouts. Use images to humanise statistics, with easy to grasp similes and metaphors. One staggering statistic is more memorable than a dozen routine one. Colourful graphics are far more useful than lists or tables of figures, but vary them so the audience doesn’t come to expect another bar chart. Ask an engaging question, encourage a debate with the answers – presentations can be two-way.

6. Humour or colloquial language?

It’s important to know your audience and to monitor its reactions closely. If people respond to humour and informal language, then match their style. However, overuse can undermine credibility. If you are not funny in real life, then don’t try it in a presentation – it’s painfully embarrassing. Humour is a great way of building rapport with an audience and keeping a presentation lively, but it has to be handled perfectly.

 7. How to portray confidence

Projecting confidence is crucial to any presentation. Take your time, pause frequently, give your audience time to take in your words. Watch their response. Wait, smile and talk to them as you would a friend. Think conversation, not monologue.

8. Handouts
A summary of the script and copies of your visuals should be made available for distribution AFTER the presentation. If it is made available beforehand, you are likely to have the audience turning pages in unison every so often, orchestrating a ‘read along with me’ session. However, you can do nothing about this if delegate packs are given out before your presentation with your handouts in it.

9. On the day
Wear business clothes that make you feel confident and smart but comfortable  shoes. Avoid jewellery that may clatter against the lecturn or microphone. Make sure you have a handkerchief or tissue – just in case. Check that there is a glass of water at hand and securely located so that it cannot spill all over your script.

10. In-house courses

We run courses in public speaking and Powerpoint in-house. If you need these skills, contact Christine Bardsley on ext 577, or raise this issue with your line manager at your next appraisal review.
   

FINALLY

You’ll get a real buzz when you sit down after giving your first really successful speech – and you may even get hooked!

 

How to summarise

What is summarising?

Summarising involves taking the main ideas from a piece of text and rewriting them in your own words to make them much shorter. A summary gives an overview of a topic.

Tips for summarising

  1. Look at the text quickly to get the gist – this is known as an active reading strategy. Look through the text to get some clues eg titles, introductions, first sentences and final paragraphs are good place.
  2. Now read it through carefully and note the high levels in the text. The high level is information about the general situation or general idea ie not the detailed information..
  3. Write notes somewhere (not on the text) and draw mind maps.
  4. You could also highlight the main ideas in the text you want to summarise – don’t include minor details. Alternatively split the text into paragraphs and then get two columns on a page – put the original text on one side and in the right hand column make your own very shot notes of the main ideas/themes in each paragraph.
  5. Combine these ideas together in your own words
  6. Don’t use your own opinion or add extra information.
  7. It takes practise – the more you do the easier it will get.  

ON YOUR MARKS

Punctuation marks are the traffic signs to control and guide the reader through written work.

Signs and signals. If you are aware of punctuation that suggests there’s something amiss. If you don’t notice the punctuation then it’s doing its job. A page peppered with commas and semicolons is a signal they’ve got the better of you. Too many marks confuse the reader. Faulty punctuation leads to misunderstanding and ambiguity. And they are just as crucial as correct spelling – perhaps more so. Here’s a recap.

Of all the marks, the full stop is the most powerful: it signifies the end of a sentence. It keeps length to the ideal 30-word limit for sharp, clear copy. Aim for two to three sentences per paragraph. An A4 printed page without illustrations needs six to eight paragraph breaks, otherwise it’s turn-off time.

The colon is used to amplify or explain something. Its main purpose is to introduce a quote. Don’t put a hyphen after it (:-) when starting a list.

The semicolon is for linking related clauses and for lists.

Three commas in a sentence usually mean one too many. Through wrong positioning they are the cause of confusion. Also the culprit when sentences become too long and when a full stop would be better. A hyphen denotes two or more words to be read as one but try to cut and join if you can. Check dictionaries.

The apostrophe is mostly for the possessive: it goes before the ‘s’ in the cat’s paws, when it is one cat but after it for more than one. And it is used in omissions (shan’t) but not for plurals or abbreviations (MPs). Put double quote marks for direct speech, single for quotes within a quote. Don’t use exclamation marks in formal writing – save them for emails only.

Down with capitalism. I keep seeing capital ‘a’ for autumn: it’s lower case for seasons, points of the compass, but upper for proper nouns, full titles of organisations, names of companies and organisations, political parties, trade names, books, films, publications.

It’s small ‘i’ for internet, worldwide web, the government, descriptive job titles as in communications director, but capitals when a formal title as is President of XYZ organisation, thereafter president. Go small whenever you can.

To each his own. It can be hard to decide whether each takes a singular or plural verb. Each of the releases is – not are – likely to be used. Easy rule: when each precedes the noun or pronoun to which it refers, use the singular; when it follows its plural: they each were.

Writing letters

Apologising

If you’re replying to a complaint, a tricky letter or a difficult problem put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Be professional. You may have to give an unwelcome answer, but do so as politely as possible. Apologise early, if you are going to do so.

If it’s your fault, say so. Apologise completely and concisely and sincerely. And whether it is your fault or not, try to emphasise what you can do for the other person.

Setting out your letter

A letter needs a beginning, middle and end. Your letter should start ‘Thank you for your letter of 15 April’ and not ‘I acknowledge receipt of…’ ‘Further to your recent….’

The middle will be your points, answers and questions in a logical order. If it is a long letter, break it up using sub-headings. Use paragraphing throughout, with about three or four sentences to each paragraph.

A suitable final sentence might be ‘I hope this has answered your questions’, ‘Thank you for your help’ or ‘If you have any questions, please ring me.’

The date

It is now common practice to write the dates as 7 July 1991 instead of 7th July 1991.

The greeting

If you are on first name terms with the reader, use ‘Dear Janet’. Otherwise use ‘Dear Mr Smith’, ‘Dear Miss Smith’ or ‘Dear Ms Smith’ if writing to a woman and don’t know which title she prefers. If you don’t know the person’s name, use ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’.

Headings

These are not usually necessary. However, if you are going to use one, don’t use all capitals; just put the heading in bold. And don’t use ‘re’.

Punctuation

Don’t put commas after:

  • each line of the address;
  • the greeting (Dear Jane); or
  • the ending line (Yours sincerely).

Also, you don’t need full stops in initials – Mr P D Smith, the DSS and so on.

Endings

If you start ‘Dear name’ end ‘Yours sincerely’. Otherwise, end with ‘Yours faithfully’.

Contact point

Make sure that your letter clearly says which person the reader should contact

and how, with any extension number if necessary.

Emphasising words

If you want to emphasise something, use bold type. Don’t use lots of capital letters as they are unfriendly and harder to read.

Always read your letter when you have finished.

Summary

  • Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.
  • Use short words. Long words will not help your writing style.
  • Use everyday English whenever possible. Avoid jargon and explain any technical terms you have to use.
  • Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Stick to one main idea in a sentence.
  • Use active verbs as much as possible. Say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done by us’.
  • Be concise.
  • Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.
  • Check that your letter is clear, helpful, human and polite.

 

  •  

How to write in plain English

So what’s plain English?

Plain English  – destroying some of the myths about it.

  •  It’s not ‘cat sat on the mat or ‘Peter and Jane’ writing. Almost anything – from leaflets and letters to legal documents – can be written in plain English without being patronising or over-simple.
  • It doesn’t mean reducing the length or changing the meaning of your message..
  • It’s not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar. Nor is it about letting grammar slip.
  • It is not an amateur’s method of communication. Most forward-looking senior managers always write in plain English.

Basically the advantages of plain English are:

  • it is faster to write;
  • it is faster to read; and
  • you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.

So what is plain English? It is a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.

Keep your sentences short

Clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words.

This does not mean making every sentence the same length. Be punchy. Vary your writing by mixing short sentences (like the last one) with longer ones (like this one), following the basic principle of sticking to one main idea in a sentence, plus perhaps one other related point. You should soon be able to keep to the average sentence length quite easily.

Activity and passiveness

You want your letters to sound active which is crisp and professional rather than passive which sounds stuffy and bureaucratic.

Peter watched the television. Here, we can call Peter the doer and the television the thing. The verb is watched. In almost all sentences that contain active verbs, the doer comes first, then the verb and then the thing.

With passive verbs, the thing comes first: The television was watched by Peter. You can see that by making the sentence passive, we have had to introduce the words was and by, and the sentence becomes more clumsy.

The doer is not always a person and the thing is not always a thing! ‘The tree crushed Peter’ is active but ‘Peter was crushed by the tree’ is passive.

Good uses of passives

 There are times of course when you should use a passive. 

  • To make something less hostile – ‘this bill has not been paid’ (passive) is softer than ‘you have not paid this bill’ (active).
  • To avoid taking the blame -‘a mistake was made’ (passive) rather than ‘we made a mistake’ (active).
  • When you don’t know who or what the doer is – ‘the England team has been picked’.
  • If it simply sounds better.

Talk to the reader

It is important that you put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Imagine you are sitting talking to your reader across a table. You will find that using shorter sentences and active verbs will help you to do this.

You and we

Try to call the reader ‘you’, even if the reader is only one of many people you are talking about generally.

Understandable words

When you are talking to your reader, say exactly what you mean, using the simplest words that fit. This does not necessarily mean only using simple words – just words that the reader will understand.

Don’t use jargon that is part of your working life unless you are writing to someone who uses the same jargon. If a teacher is writing to an education officer, the jargon word SATs could be very useful in saving time and space. But you wouldn’t use it when writing to a parent.

So in general, keep to everyday English whenever possible. And again, imagine talking to your reader across a table.

Giving instructions

Sit!

Brush your teeth.

Please send it to me.

These are all commands – officially called imperatives. They are the fastest and most direct way of giving someone instructions.

However, if we asked a hardened bureaucrat to write these expressions, we would end up with something like this:

Dogs are advised that they should sit down.

Your teeth should be brushed.

I should be grateful if you would send it to me.

There always seems to be a fear of commands. The most common fault is putting ‘customers should do this’ or ‘you should do this’ instead of just ‘do this’. Perhaps people worry that commands sound too harsh. But if you put the word ‘please’ in front -‘ please do this’ – the problem goes away.

Get rid of nominalisations

A nominalisation is a type of abstract noun. (Is that plain English?) In other words, it is the name of something that isn’t a physical object but a process, technique or emotion.

Nominalisations are formed from verbs.

For example:

Verb

Nominalisation

complete

completion

introduce

introduction

provide

provision

fail

failure

arrange

arrangement

investigate

investigation

So what’s wrong with them?

The problem is that often they are used instead of the verbs they come from. And because they are merely the names of things, they sound as if nothing is actually happening in the sentence. Like passive verbs, too many of them make writing very dull and heavy-going.

Here are some examples.

We had a discussion about the matter.

  • We discussed the matter.

 There will be a stoppage of trains by drivers.

  • Drivers will stop the trains.

 Other points to consider

Sounding positive

Always try to emphasise the positive side of things.

For example:

If you don’t send your payment, we won’t be able to renew your membership of the scheme. (negative)

  • Please send your payment so that we can renew your membership of the scheme. (positive)

Get graphic!

Type shape

Most fonts can be divided into two groups:

  • serif, which have pointed bits (serifs) like this and
  • sans serif, which are plain, like this.

Because serifs can be distracting, it’s usually best to stick to sans serif fonts, like Arial. Don’t be tempted to use many different fonts in the same document.

 Size matters

 Type size is measured in ‘points’. Use a font size of 12 point. But, if you are pushed for space, you can go down to 10 point, but not less. The Royal National Institute for the Blind recommends a minimum type size of 14 point if you know the readers have visual impairments. For headings, use a font size at least two points bigger than the body text. Avoid using block capital letters – it makes words difficult to read and looks as though YOU ARE SHOUTING. Stick to bold style for emphasis – don’t underline. Avoid blocks of text in italics – the odd word is OK, but a block of italic text is difficult to read.

Line length

Line length can affect the ease and speed of your reading. Very long and very short lines force you to read more slowly. The size of the type you should use depends on the length of the line. Longer lines of body text need larger type.

A line of body text should contain about 10 to 12 words.

Line spacing/leading

Line spacing  or ‘leading’ is measured in the same units as the type size.  For body text, the space between lines should be greater than the space between words. If not, your eye will tend to jump to the next line down.  For 10 -12 point text, use leading of about 120% of the type size.

Alignment

You have four basic options when aligning text:

  • justified, when a column of text is aligned on both left and right
  • ranged left, also known as ragged right
  • ranged right, also known as ragged left
  • centred.

Use ranged left body text for easier reading. Justified text may look neater, but it is more difficult to read. Avoid splitting a word in two with hyphenation – it is more difficult to read words split over two lines.

 Graphic elements

Pages dense with text are very off-putting. Use design to attract your readers and to help them find their way around your documents. Try to aim for a margin of about 25mm at the top and bottom and at the sides of each page. Use a clear hierarchy of headings and sub-headings using different type sizes.

Make sure there is a good tonal contrast between the type colour and the background eg use black or dark blue type on a white background. To link a sub-heading with the following text you should have more space above it than below it. Display text needs breathing space. White space should frame  headlines or headings as they look better and attract more attention than if you filled the available space with large type.

Professional touches

Pull quotes

A pull quote takes an extract from your text and displays it prominently, usually in a side margin. You should keep it short and choose a pithy or dramatic extract to encourage your reader’s curiosity.

Dashes

You should distinguish between the three different dashes (hyphen, en dash and em dash).

Use the hyphen in connected words (take-off, daughter-in-law).

Use the en dash where the dash is replacing the word ‘to’. Examples are:

  • spans of numbers, such as ‘3–5’
  • connecting nouns, such as ‘France–Italy’ final

Use the em dash:

  • instead of a colon or
  • to set apart a strong interruption — like brackets or bracketing commas — within a sentence.

Ten tips

  • Use a sans serif typeface.
  • Use one or two typefaces when you design your document.
  • Use bold to emphasise.
  • Avoid using all upper-case letters and underlining.
  • Don’t use italics for long text passages.
  • Use captions with illustrations.
  • Use short headlines.
  • Use dashes and hyphens correctly.
  • Use white space to invite your reader into the document.
  • Use a good tonal contrast between the type and the background.