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Getting a message across on paper and presenting a proposal in a clear and persuasive form are vital skills for anyone in business. How to Write Reports and Proposals offers pointers for anyone who needs to impress, convince, or persuade their colleagues or clients. Using checklists, exercises and examples, it explains how to plan what to write, how to transfer ideas onto paper, and how to edit them to achieve the best results. There is also valuable information on the power of language, persuasive writing, and presentation.
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The book, its contents, explanation are really very comprehensive.
05 May 2018 (19:28) 

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How to Write
Reports and


How to Write
Reports and
Patrick Forsyth | Revised Second Edition

Publisher’s note
Every possible effort has been made to ensure that the information contained in
this book is accurate at the time of going to press, and the publishers and author
cannot accept responsibility for any errors or omissions, however caused. No
responsibility for loss or damage occasioned to any person acting, or refraining
from action, as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by the
editor, the publisher or the author.
First edition 2003
Second edition 2006
Reprinted 2006, 2007 (twice), 2008
Revised second edition 2010
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or
criti-cism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act
1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form
or by any means, with the prior permission in writing of the publishers, or in the
case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with the terms and licences
issued by the CLA. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside these terms
should be sent to the publishers at the undermentioned addresses:
120 Pentonville Road
525 South 4th Street, #241
London n1 9jn
Philadelphia pa 19147
United Kingdom

4737/23 Ansari Road
New Delhi 110002

© Patrick Forsyth, 2003, 2006, 2010
The right of Patrick Forsyth to be identified as the author of this work has been
asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
978 0 7494 5665 8
E-ISBN 978 0 7494 5903 1
The views expressed in this book are those of the author and are not necessarily
the same as those of Times Newspapers Ltd.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Forsyth, Patrick.
   How to write reports and proposals / Patrick Forsyth, --;  Rev. 2nd ed.
     Rev. ed. of: How to write reports & proposals. 2006.
     ISBN 978-0-7494-5665-8 -- ISB 978-0-7494-5903-1 (ebook) 1. Business
report writing. 2. Proposal writing in business. 3. Business
writing. I. Forsyth, Patrick. How to write reports & proposals. II.
   HF5719.F67 2010
Typeset by Jean Cussons Typesetting, Diss, Norfolk
Printed and bound in India by Replika Press Pvt Ltd


		 Acknowledgements vii
		 A note on this new edition


		 Introduction: pitfalls and opportunities


What makes good business writing? 7


The hazards of communication 7; Serious, and very


serious 8; Why have a report? 11; Readers’ expectations 12;


The readers’ perspective 14; Powerful habits 16;


Earning a reading 17; Inappropriate standards 19;


Clear intention 19; Absolute clarity 20; The rewards of


excellence 22; A significant opportunity 23; Key points 24


Creating a good report 25


Setting clear objectives 25; A sound structure 27;


First, the beginning 29; The middle 31; The end 34;


After the end 36; Key points 37




Preparing to write 39


Why this report? 41; Research prior to preparation 43;


A systematic approach 45; Shaking off old habits 55;


Key points 57


The power of language 59


Cultivating a style 59; Readers’ expectations 60; Readers’


dislikes 65; The writer’s approach 67; Use of language 69;


Making language work for you 69; Mistakes to avoid 72;


Folllowing the rules 75; Style 77; Technological dilution 78;


Key points 78


Dealing with numbers 79


Action to help 80; Methods of presenting numbers clearly 82;


The contribution of language 85; Key points 88


Making proposals persuasive 89


A cumulative process 89; A key stage 91; Persuasive


technique 92; The don’ts 92; The dos 93; Quotations versus


proposals 96; Choice of format 96; Timing 98; Proposal


content 100; Checklist 107; Covering letters 108; The


presentation of proposals 113; Earn attention 114; Key


points 114


The contribution of presentation 115


How the pages look 117; The exhibits 121; Other options


for inclusion 124; Overall packaging 124; Key points 125




A ‘how-to’ book such as this cannot be written unaided. Certainly
this book draws on much experience and advice from throughout
my career. More than twenty years working in marketing
consultancy and training has made a great deal of writing
unavoidable: reports and proposals; memos and letters; course
notes and articles (and, in my case, books): all are an inherent
part of the activity.
Early in my career I realised two things about this element of
the work. First, my writing left a bit to be desired. Secondly, it
mattered. I became – had to become – conscious of what made
the process of business writing work. I realised that rules and
guidelines did make achieving the desired result more certain: so
too did some study of the matter.
So, thanks are due to those of my colleagues who have
focused my mind on the problem and the opportunities, and to
those clients (especially those attending my courses on writing
skills) who have provided feedback over the years. Their
comments and suggestions contribute to any ability I may now
have to comment on such matters.


A note on this new edition

Since this book was first published in 2003 its message has
proved pretty much timeless. The standard of written messages
in businesses and organisations remains such as to often leave
something to be desired and, at worst, do harm ranging from
simple misunderstandings to lost business or reputations. This
is, as this book makes clear, an opportunity for those who do a
good job and write in a workmanlike way.
The evidence of regular lack of care in writing remains all
around us. When I travelled through Paddington Station in
London recently I saw a sign saying ‘Customers must stay with
their luggage at all times, or they will be taken away and
destroyed’. Alright, security is important, but this is silly; I hung
onto to my bag tightly, I did not want to have to ring home saying
I was about to be destroyed.
More seriously the one thing that has changed since
publication of the first edition of this book and affected us all
recently is the changed economic situation. My book Tough
Tactics for Tough Times (also published by Kogan Page and cowritten with Frances Kay) explores suitable responses. But such
conditions affect the task of writing too. When things get more


A Note on this New Edition

competitive in terms of organisations or individuals then any
lack of clarity and precision in communicating is doubly
dangerous. Good writing can differentiate – positively
differentiate – just when such is needed.
In today’s competitive workplace clear communication is a
must; in slightly revised form this book still offers solid, practical
guidance to being effective when your messages must be in
writing, and must work.

Introduction: pitfalls and
Writing is easy, all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of
paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.
Gene Fowler

In a busy business life writing anything can be a chore. There are
surely more important things to be done. People to meet,
decisions to be made, action to be taken. Yet all of these things
and more can be dependent on written communication. A letter
or memo may set up a meeting, a report may present a case and
prompt a decision, a proposal may act persuasively to make sure
certain action is taken or a particular option is selected.
Reading business papers can also be a chore though, and they
will not achieve their purpose unless they are read, understood
and do their job well enough to actively prompt the reader to
action. Business writing must earn a reading.
You are probably both a reader and a writer of business
documents. Consider writing with your reader’s hat on for a
moment. Do you read everything that crosses your desk? Do you
read every word of the things you do read? Do you read
everything from the first word through in sequence, or do you dip


How to Write Reports and Proposals

into things? Almost certainly the answers make it clear that not
all writing is treated equally. Some documents are more likely to
be read than others. Of course, some subjects demand your
attention. Who ignores a personal note from the Managing
Director? But the fact that some things have to be read does not
make their reading any easier or more pleasurable.
Good writing, which means, not least, something that is easy
to read and understand, will always be likely to get more
attention than sloppy writing. Yet prevailing standards in this
area are by no means universally good. I suspect that if I were
given a pound for everyone in the world who, as I type this, is
struggling through some document and wishing it was better
written, I would not need to be writing! Something seems to
happen when pen is put to paper as it were, and communications
and effectiveness suffer. There is a hotel in the United Kingdom
that has the following sign on the inside of every bedroom door:
‘In the interests of security, please ensure that your door is fully
closed when entering or leaving your room.’ Just one sentence,
but it is nonsense (or a good trick if you can do it), yet someone
wrote this, printed and posted it and still apparently no one
Why is this? Maybe it is education; or lack of it. Certainly
little I did at school assisted me with the kind of writing I found
myself having to do once I was in business. Maybe it is lack of
feedback; perhaps managers are too tolerant of what is put in
front of them. If more of it was rejected, and had to be rewritten,
then more attention might be brought to bear on the task.
Habits are important here too. We all develop a style of
writing and may find it difficult to shift away from it. Worse, bad
habits may be reinforced by practice. For example, in one
computer company where I was asked to conduct a course on
proposal writing, I was sent a number of currently typical
proposals that seemed to me largely gobbledegook. I asked why
they were put together as they were, and it became clear that all
that had happened was that one proposal had been used as a
model for the next; this had continued for six years! During that
time no one had really thought about the style of document being



used at all. It took a new manager to realise that the rate of strike
in terms of new orders was being actively influenced for the
worse by the low standard involved.

Deadly detail
We can all recognise the really bad report, without structure or
style, but with an excess of jargon, convoluted sentences and
which prompts the thought: ‘What is it trying to say?’ But such
documents do not have to be a complete mess to fail in their
purpose. They are inherently fragile. One wrongly chosen word
may dilute understanding or act to remove what would otherwise
be a positive impression made.
Even something as simple as a spelling mistake (and, no,
spellcheckers are not infallible) may have a negative effect. I will
never forget, in my first year in a consulting firm, playing a small
part in proposals that were submitted to a dairy products
company. After meetings, deliberations and more meetings a
written proposal was sent. A week passed. Then an envelope
arrived from the company concerned. Inside was a single sheet of
paper. It was a copy of the title page of the proposal and on it was
written, in red ink the three words ‘No thank you’; this alongside
a red ring drawn around one typed word. The word ‘dairy’ had
been spelt ‘diary’. For a long while after that everything was
checked much more carefully.
As a very first rule to drum into your subconscious – check,
check and check again. I treasure the computer manual that
states ‘The information presented in this publication has been
carefully for reliability’; no one is infallible, but I digress.
Whether the cause of a document being less good than it
should be is major or minor, the damage is the same. Yet
sometimes, despite recognising poor writing when they see it,
people may believe that writing habits cannot be changed. I am
not sure why. I do a great deal of work in presentation skills
training and people rarely doubt that that skill can be improved
by training. Yet with writing they do.


How to Write Reports and Proposals

A major opportunity
No matter. Whatever the reasons for poor writing may be, suffice
to say that, if prevailing standards are low, then there is a major
opportunity here for those who better that standard. More so for
those who excel. Business writing is what I call a ‘career’ skill. It
is not only important in a job, and to the undertaking of specific
tasks and the results they, in turn, produce – but it is also
important to the individual. Bad reports might just come back to
haunt you later and, just as with certain other skills, progress in
an organisation or a career may be dependent on a minimum
quality of performance of such tasks.
Recently I commented on the enthusiasm of a group on an
in-company course for the topic and was told by the manager
who had set up the event: ‘No one gets promoted in this
organisation unless they can make a good presentation and write
a good report’. Sensible enough and, I suspect, increasingly
So, business writing, and particularly the writing of longer
documents – the reports and proposals this book is concerned
with – is a vital skill. There may be a great deal hanging on a
document doing the job it is intended to do – a decision, a sale, a
financial result, or a personal reputation. For those who can
acquire sound skills in this area very real opportunities exist. The
more you have to write, and the more important the documents
you create, then the more true this is.
Quite simply, if you write well then you are more likely to
achieve your business goals.
This point cannot be overemphasised. One sheet of paper
may not change the world, but – well written – it can influence
many events in a way that affects results and those doing the
And you can write well. We may not all aspire to or succeed in
writing the great novel, but most people can learn to turn out
good business writing – writing that is well tailored to its
purpose and likely to create the effect it intends. This book



reviews some of the approaches that can make writing reports
and proposals easier, quicker (a worthwhile end in itself) and,
most important, more likely to achieve their purpose.
Good business writing need not be difficult. It is a skill that
can be developed with study and practice. Some effort may be
involved, and certainly practice helps, but it could be worse.
Somerset Maugham is quoted as saying: ‘There are three rules for
writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’
Business writing is not so dependent on creativity, though this is
involved, and it is subject to certain rules. Rules, of course, are
made to be broken. But they do act as useful guidelines and can
therefore be a help. This book reviews how to go about the
writing task and, in part, when to follow the rules and when to
break them.
Many of the points that follow relate to both reports and
proposals, any special points regarding the persuasive nature of
proposals are reserved for their own chapter; any overlap is
Patrick Forsyth
Touchstone Training & Consultancy
28 Saltcote Maltings
Essex CM9 4QP
United Kingdom


What makes good business
Despite predictions about the ‘paperless office’ we seem as
surrounded – submerged? – by paper as ever. Indeed as
documentation is essentially only a form a communication, this
is likely to remain so. However a case is presented, even if there
is no paper, as with something sent through e-mail for example,
it has to be written.
With no communication any organisation is stifled. Without
communication nothing much would happen. Communication
– good communication – should oil the wheels of organisational
activity and facilitate action. This is true of even the simplest
memo, and is certainly so of something longer and more complex
like a report.

The hazards of communication
Communication is – inherently – inclined to be less than
straightforward. Perhaps this is an understatement:
communication can be downright difficult. We all know this and


How to Write Reports and Proposals

experience it day to day. How often in your office do people say:
‘What exactly do you mean?’, ‘Why ever didn’t you say so?’, ‘Don’t
you understand anything?’, ‘Listen, for goodness sake, listen’.
Confusion in all its forms is a constant lurking presence.
Confusion may occur after just a few words. What exactly is
‘24-hour service’ other than insufficiently spelt out? When
exactly can we expect something someone says they will do ‘right
away’? If this is true of such tiny communications, how much
more potential for misunderstanding does a 25-page report
Much of the confusion arising from unclear communication
is due to lack of thought. In discussion, the old adage that we
should engage the brain before the mouth is a good one. Yet in
conversation at least the opportunity to sort things out is there. A
question can be asked, a clarification given and the conversation
can then proceed with everyone clear what was meant. But with
written communication the danger is that the confusion lasts.
There is not necessarily an immediate opportunity to check (the
writer might be 100 miles away), and a misunderstanding on
page 3 may skew the whole message taken from an entire report.

Serious, and very serious
Once something is in writing any error that causes
misunderstanding is made permanent, at least for a while. The
dangers of ill-thought-out writing varies:
• It may be wrong, but still manage to convey its
meaning. For instance, a prominently displayed sign on
a golf course instructs: ‘No dog walking or exercising on
the course unless playing golf’. Clever dogs only? This
notice may amuse, but it will probably be understood.
No great harm done perhaps, though in business any
fault tends to highlight the possibility of other, more
serious, faults.


What Makes Good Business Writing?

• It may try hard to please, yet end up giving the wrong
impression. In a Renaissance Hotel I stayed in recently
there was a sign on the coffee shop tables that said:
Courtesy of Choice: The concept and symbol of ‘Courtesy of Choice’
reflect the centuries-old philosophy that acknowledges differences
while allowing them to exist together in harmony. ‘Courtesy of
Choice’ accommodates the preferences of individuals by offering
both smoking and non-smoking areas in the spirit of conviviality
and mutual respect.

An absurd over-politeness just ends up making the
message sound rude – this restaurant has both smoking
and nonsmoking areas and if you are a non-smoker and
find yourself next to a smoker, tough. It does matter.
• It may be so muddled as to confuse (and dilute image as
it does so). For example, Blockbuster video stores
recently communicated with their film hire
customers thus:
Limited Time Only. Rentals not returned by noon on date due shall be
assessed an extended viewing fee on a per rental period basis. 5-day
rentals are now 1-week rentals and if not received by noon on the 9th
day shall be assessed extended viewing fee equal to the original price
for each additional weekly rental period, provided that the extended
viewing fee policy in participating franchise stores may vary.
Membership rules apply to rental. At participating stores for a limited
time. See participating stores for details and extended viewing fee

Clear? I doubt it. Annoyed? Very probably, and if you
run foul of the rules and then someone tells you that
‘It was all made clear in writing’ very annoyed, no
• It may do real damage. A press release is an important
piece of writing. I noticed one quoted in the national


How to Write Reports and Proposals

press recently, sent out by the consulting group
Accenture. The item commented that Accenture
envisioned: ‘A world where economic activity is
ubiquitous, unbounded by the traditional definitions of
commerce and universal’.
Er, yes – or rather, no. The item referred not to the
content of the release, only to the fact that it contained a
statement so wholly gobbledegook as to have no
meaning at all. It is sad when the writing is so bad that
it achieves less than nothing.
• It may just be nonsense: like the form accompanying
details for those wishing to open an account with
savings bank ING Direct, which asks the applicant to
specify their sex as male, female or unknown. Or the
sales letter offering ‘free CDs at discount prices’. Clearly
an out and out mistake is recognised as just that, but its
presence can reduce the overall credibility of the writer
and/or their organisation.
I suspect that one could extend such a list of examples
extensively, right through to the language of highly abbreviated
text messages. The point here is clear: it is all too easy for the
written word to fail. I am sure that all the above were the subject
of some thought and checking, but not enough. Put pen to paper
and you step onto dangerous ground.
So, the first requirement of good business writing is clarity.
And I make no apology for the fact that this is returned to more
than once through this book. A good report needs thinking
about if it is to be clear, and it should never be taken for
granted that understanding will be automatically generated
by what we write.
It is more likely that we will give due consideration to clarity,
and give the attention it needs to achieving it, if we are clear
about the purpose of any report we may write.


What Makes Good Business Writing?

Why have a report?
Exactly why a report is written is important. This may seem
self-evident, yet many reports are no more than something
‘about’ their topic. Their purpose is not clear. Without clear
intentions the tendency is for the report to ramble, to go round
and round and not come to any clear conclusion.
Reports may be written for many reasons, for example they
may intend to:
• inform;
• recommend;
• motivate;
• prompt or play a part in debate;
• persuade;
• impress;
• record;
• reinforce or build on existing situations or beliefs;
• instruct.
In addition, they may have more complex objectives such as
changing people’s attitudes. Further, such factors are not
mutually exclusive. You may need to do a number of things
simultaneously. Or you may need to do some things for one
group of people and others for different groups. A report
designed to explain an organisational change, and set
implementation in train, may need to pick up and develop a
situation of which senior people are generally aware, yet start
from scratch with others. The first group may already be
persuaded that the change is good, and are eager for the details.
The others may be deeply suspicious.
Any such complexity compounds the problem of writing an
appropriate report. But recognising and understanding such
complexities, and seeing any inherent conflicts that may affect
the way a report is received, is the first step to being able to
produce something that will do the job required and do it well.


How to Write Reports and Proposals

Readers’ expectations
If a report is to be well received, then it must meet certain
expectations of its readers. Before going into these let us consider
generally what conditions such expectations. Psychologists talk
about what they call ‘cognitive cost’. This is best explained by
example. Imagine you are wanting to programme the video
recorder. You want to do something that is other than routine, so
you get out the instruction book. Big mistake. You open it (try
this, you can open it at random) and the two-page spread shouts
at you ‘This is going to be difficult!’ Such a document has a high
cognitive cost, rather than appearing inviting, even a cursory
look is off-putting.
People are wary of this effect. They look at any document
almost expecting reading it to be hard work. If they discover it
looks easier and more inviting than they thought (a low cognitive
cost), then they are likely to read it with more enthusiasm.
Moreover, the effect here can be powerful: a real – perhaps
surprising – clarity can score points. Reading between the lines,
people take such clarity to mean a number of things: that trouble
has been taken, that considerable, impressive expertise is
Overall, what gives people the feeling, both at first glance
and as they get further into it, that a report is not to be avoided
on principle? In no particular order, readers like it if a document
• Brief: obviously something shorter is likely to appear to
be easier to read than something long, but what really
matters is that a report is of an appropriate length for
its topic and purpose. Perhaps the best word to apply is
succinct – to the point, long enough to say what is
necessary and no more. A report may be 10 pages long,
or 50, and still qualify for this description.
• Clear: the reader must be able to understand it. And this
applies in a number of ways for example, it should be


What Makes Good Business Writing?




clearly written (in the sense of not being convoluted),
and use appropriate language – you should not feel that,
as an intended reader, you have to look up every second
word in a dictionary.
Precise: saying exactly what is necessary and not
constantly digressing without purpose.
In ‘our language’: in other words using a level and style
of language that is likely to make sense to the average
reader, and which displays evidence of being designed
to do so.
Simple: avoiding unnecessary complexity (something
we will return to in Chapter 4).
Well structured: so that it proceeds logically through a
sequence that is clear and makes sense as a reasonable
way of dealing with the message.
Descriptive: again we return to this in Chapter 4, here it
suffices to say that if there is a need to paint a picture
the document must do so in a way that gets that picture

All these characteristics have in common that they can act to
make reading easier. Further, they act cumulatively. That is, the
more things are right in each of these ways, the clearer the overall
report will be. If the impression is given that attention has
actively been given to making the reader’s task easier, so much
the better.

Both the above factors are worth personalising to the kind
of people to whom you must write. Whether this is
internal (colleagues perhaps) or external (people like
customers or collaborators) you need to be clear what
your communications have to do and what kind of
expectations exist at the other end. For example, a
technical person may have different expectations from a


How to Write Reports and Proposals

layperson, and may be looking to check a level of detail
that must exist and be clearly expressed for the report to
be acceptable to him or her.
   Make a list of typical recipients of your documents and
what they expect, to keep by you as you write.

The readers’ perspective
It follows logically from what has been said in this chapter so far
that a good report must reflect the needs of the readers. Report
writing cannot be undertaken in a vacuum. It is not simply an
opportunity for the writer to say things as he or she wants.
Ultimately only its readers can judge a report to be good. Thus
their perspective is the starting point and as the report writer you
need to think about who the intended readers are, how they
think, how they view the topic of the report, what their
experience to date is of the issues, and how they are likely to
react to what you have to say. The following case study makes
clear the importance of assessing your own intentions alongside
the viewpoint of others before communicating.

A travel agency is essentially a service and a people
business. In one particular firm, with a chain of some 30
retail outlets across several counties, business was
lagging behind targets. The industry was, at the time,
not in recession, rather the lag was due to competitive
activity and was potentially something that a more
active, sales-oriented approach could potentially cure.
Initially the approach to the problem was to draw
attention to the problem at every level. Memos were
circulated to all staff. The figures quoted – the sales
revenue planned and the amount to come from holidays,
flights, etc – were substantial amounts. Even the
shortfall was some hundreds of thousands of pounds.


What Makes Good Business Writing?

   The result? Well, certainly the sales graph did not
rise. But, equally certainly, staff morale dropped. People
went from feeling they worked for a successful
organisation to thinking it was – at worst – foundering;
and feeling that the fault was being laid at their door.
The figures meant little to the kind of young people who
staffed the counters – being just unimaginably large
numbers to which they were wholly unable to relate
   With the need to redress the situation becoming
more urgent, a different strategy was planned. A new
document was circulated (ahead of a sales conference).
The large shortfall was amortised and presented as a
series of smaller figures – one per branch. These ‘catchup’ figures were linked to what needed to be sold, in
addition to normal business, in order to catch up and hit
target. It amounted, if I remember rightly, to two
additional holidays (Mum, Dad and 2.2 children) per
branch, per week. Not only was this something staff
could easily relate to, it was something they understood
and felt was possible. Individual targets, ongoing
communication to report progress and some prizes for
branches hitting and beating these targets completed
the picture.
   What resulted this time? The numbers slowly
climbed. The gap closed. Motivation increased with
success in sight. And a difficult year ended with the
company hitting the original planned targets – and
motivation continued to run high as a real feeling of
achievement was felt.
   The key here was, I am sure, one of good
communications. The numbers and the difficulty of
hitting them did not change. But, with greater empathy
with the people dealing with customers, the perception
of the problem was made manageable, personal and –
above all – was made to seem achievable. The results
then showed that success was possible. No significant


How to Write Reports and Proposals

costs were involved here, just a little thought and time
to make sure the communications were right, that
motivation was positively affected and that results
stood a real chance of rising. While this description
makes it clear what the right tone of document can
achieve, the details of precisely how it was written were
doubtless significant too.

This links to preparation, which is dealt with in depth in the next
All this is surely no more than common sense, yet it must be
easy to forget or there would not be so many turgid reports
around and so many disillusioned report readers. How so?
First, it is all too easy to find you are taking a somewhat
introspective view in putting something down on paper. After all
you view yourself as important, you are involved, you are
knowledgeable about the matter, why else are you the person
writing the report?
Secondly, many people – with you among them perhaps –
have been dropped into business writing at the deep end. One day
someone requested a report, and you crept off to find something
similar which you could use as a template. This is fine if what
you picked up was a first-class document; if not it is like the blind
leading the blind.

Powerful habits
The result of any initial bad experience may well have been to
develop bad habits. The new report writer quickly gets into a
particular way of presenting material and much of it then
becomes a reflex. This may become something that prompts
failure by default. Reports fail to present a clear case, people


What Makes Good Business Writing?

find reading them tedious and frustrating, and whatever it
is the reports aim to do (prompt a decision, perhaps) fails to
Habit, and the ongoing pressure of business, combine to
push people into writing on ‘automatic pilot’. Sometimes if you
critique something that you wrote, or that went out from your
department, you can clearly see something that is wrong. A
sentence does not make sense, a point fails to get across or a
description confuses rather than clarifies. Usually the reason
this has occurred is not that the writer really thought this was
the best sentence or phrase and got it wrong. Rather it was
because there was inadequate thought of any sort; or none
at all.
Habits can be difficult to break and the end result can be a
plethora of material moving around organisations couched in a
kind of gobbledegook or what some call ‘office-speak’. The
example in Figure 1.1 is a caricature of this sort of
communication, but there is too much that comes too close to
this in circulation.

Earning a reading
The moral here is clear. Good report writing does not just happen.
It needs some thought and some effort (and some study, with
which this book aims to assist). The process needs to be actively
worked at if the result is going to do the job you have in mind,
and do it with some certainty.
Good habits are as powerful as bad ones though. A shift from
one to another is possible and the rewards in this case make the
game very much worth the candle. Think what good report
writing skills can achieve.


How to Write Reports and Proposals

(for those with no progress to report)
During the survey period which ended on 14 February,
considerable progress has been made in the preliminary
work directed towards the establishment of the initial
activities. (We are getting ready to start, but we have not done
anything yet.) The background information has been
reviewed and the functional structure of the various
component parts of the project have been matched with
appropriate human resources. (We looked at the project and
decided George should lead it.)
   Considerable difficulty has been encountered in the
selection of optimum approaches and methods, but this
problem is being attacked vigorously and we expect the
development phase will proceed at a satisfactory rate.
(George is reading the brief.) In order to prevent the
unnecessary duplication of previous work in the same field,
it was necessary to establish a project team that had
conducted a quite extensive tour through various
departments with immediate relevance to the study.
(George and Mary had a nice time visiting everyone.)
   The Steering Committee held its regular meetings and
considered quite important policy matters pertaining to the
overall organisational levels of the line and staff
responsibilities that devolve on the personnel associated
with the specific assignments resulting from the broad
functional specifications. (Which means...?) It is believed
that the rate of progress will continue to accelerate as
necessary personnel become available to play their part in
the discussions that must proceed decisions. (We really will
do something soon – if we can.)
Figure 1.1 From the company notice board


What Makes Good Business Writing?

Inappropriate standards
Writing something, especially something you know is important
and must be got right, can seem like a chore. So the ubiquitous
standard letter, report or proposal is a godsend: draft it out once,
store it in the computer and use it every time similar
circumstances demand another such document. It saves time
and money, and the mechanics of word processing allow minor
changes to be made along the way, and of course the document
can be – should be in many cases – personally addressed.
However, when standard text is used, and this may be for
anything from acknowledging a customer enquiry or chasing a
late payment to proposing something complex and important,
the dangers that go along with this methodology must be

Danger – again and again
While standard letters can help you run an efficient and effective
business, a poor one may not just aggravate one recipient, its
regular use may dilute the positive impression that it should be
giving to many people over time.

Clear intention
The first prerequisite when originating anything that will become
‘standard’ is to have a clear intention: ask yourself what the
objective is. A letter to a customer might be designed to prompt
an order, or to fulfil some other purpose as you move towards
that, get agreement to someone agreeing to a meeting with you
perhaps. Whatever it is designed to do it will also project an
image – for good or ill – so the language and the message must do
that too. This should be very specific. It is not enough to hope
that such communication will make people think well of you.


How to Write Reports and Proposals

What should they think? If you want to be thought efficient,
project your experience or expertise or show that you understand
the recipient, then a letter must be designed to do just that, and
doing so becomes part of its intention.

Absolute clarity
If you are absolutely clear what you are trying to do (and many
such documents are not), then the next job is to ensure that what
is written is clear. Achieving understanding comes first. So
writing must be precise; the discount bedding retailer that told
customers ‘Our January Sale only happens once a year’, probably
did not mean to say exactly that, but no one noticed the error
before their customer letter containing the phrase was sent.
Similarly, the company sending out a series of letters to latepaying customers, each more strongly worded than the last,
spoilt any effectiveness they might have had by heading each one
with the identical words: Final demand. Here the wrong message
is inferred, just how many final demands can you have? Clearly as
a customer reads letter number two they know for sure that
number one manifestly did not mean what it said.
The need to do more than just be clear, perhaps to persuade,
makes careful writing even more important. But clarity must
always be paramount. This can be diluted by writing too fast,
without due thought – or simply by failing to check once a draft
is done. Often clarity fails to be achieved only by neglect. But a
further good rule here is never to confuse clarity with cleverness.
Ask yourself whether the brilliant pun or play on words you feel
makes an exceptional heading also makes it clear what the letter
is about; and edit ruthlessly to ensure clarity shines through. If a
piece of text is to be reused (and reused) it is worth making sure
you get it right.
Consider the apparently simple standard letter. Three things
should link to rules:


What Makes Good Business Writing?

• Every letter matters and if something is going to be used
hundreds of times it matters more. So, what it says and
how it says it is very important: standard letters must
be composed with great care.
• The text should always be checked carefully, ideally by
more than one person, especially if the second person is
not too involved and, seeing it with fresh eyes, can act
as devil’s advocate.
• There should be a mandatory system of review. Once in
use, every standard letter should be checked regularly.
Does it still do the job for which it is intended, should it
be amended or changed completely? As soon as a new
standard document is originated, decide how long you
can leave it and put a firm reminder in your diary (or on
your computer) to check it, and then amend it if
necessary, to make sure it remains one hundred per
cent appropriate. You can do this with a databank of
perhaps hundreds of different letters and be sure that
they are all up to date all the time.
This is an area where you might prompt immediate
improvement. It may well be that there are letters being sent off
regularly from your organisation that do not do justice to their
purpose. Check. You may well find that no one has thought about
some of them for a worryingly long time. If you find weak ones,
rewrite them; you can do this progressively to make it
manageable. Then link them into a review system and make sure
that they work well, and go on working well.
The principles here relate to every document, perhaps more
so to those more complex and longer than a letter. The final piece
of the jigsaw for making standard documentation work is to
amend it, at least to some degree, every time. Three kinds of
alteration must be watched:
• What do you need to add?
• What do you need to omit?
• What do you need to change?


How to Write Reports and Proposals

It is easy to miss things. I received a letter from a holiday
company recently. One hotel was the subject and the information
it gave me was good, but the name of another hotel remained
unaltered from the last time the clearly standard document had
been used; and in two places in as many pages. Standard
documents can be a godsend, but only when they are used
intelligently so that readers see them not as an inefficient time
saving technique, but rather as spot on, providing the
information, style and accuracy required.

The rewards of excellence
Occasionally reports may be written ‘for the record’. They are of
no great import or value. More often, however, if trouble is being
taken to prepare a report then it has some real purpose. Reports
are written to lead to action, to make things happen, or play a
part in so doing. Communication influences people, and here the
intention is clear: a report usually has a case to present, one that
will act so as to play a part in the thinking that follows. A decision
is made, albeit in part because of the way the case has been put
over in a report.
So far so good, reports can influence action. But they also act
to create an image of the writer. Within an organisation of any
size, people interact through communication. They send each
other memos, they sit in meetings and on committees, they chat
as they pass on the stairs, or share a sandwich at lunchtime; and
all of this sends out signals. It tells the world, or at least the
organisation, something about them. Are they knowledgeable,
competent, expert, easy to deal with, decisive – would you take
their advice, follow their lead or support their cause?
All the different ways in which people interrelate act
together, cumulatively and progressively, to build up and
maintain an image of each individual. Some ways may play a
disproportionate part, and report writing is one such. There are
two reasons why this effect is important. First, reports, unlike

23 What Makes Good Business Writing?

more transient means of communication, can last. They are
passed around, considered and remain on the record; more so if
they are about important issues. Second, because not everyone
can write a good report, people can be impressed by a clear ability
to marshal an argument and put it over in writing.
Thus reports represent an opportunity, or in fact two
opportunities. Reports – at least, good ones – can be instrumental
in prompting action; action you want, perhaps. They are also
important to your profile. They say something about the kind of
person you are and what you are like to work with. In a sense
there are situations where you want to make sure certain
personal qualities shine through. A case may be supported by it
being clear that it is presented by someone who gives attention to
details, for instance.
Longer term, the view taken of someone by their superiors
may be influenced by their regularly reading what they regard as
good reports. So, next time you are burning the midnight oil to
get some seemingly tedious report finalised, think of it as the
business equivalent of an open goal and remember, it could
literally be affecting your chances of promotion!

A significant opportunity
Reports demand detailed work. Their preparation may, on
occasion, seem tedious. They certainly need adequate time set
aside for them. But as the old saying has it: if a job is worth doing,
it is worth doing well. It may take no more time to prepare a good
report than it does to prepare a lacklustre one. Indeed, the next
chapter contends that a systematic approach can speed up your
If reports, and other such documentation, are clear, focused
and set out to earn a reading, they are more likely to achieve their
purpose. In this case they are also more likely to act positively to
enhance the profile of the writer. Both these results are surely
worthwhile. But the job still has to be done, the words still have

24 How to Write Reports and Proposals

to be got down on paper, and faced with a blank sheet (or, these
days, screen) this can be a daunting task (I know – at this point I
still have six chapters in front of me!). Making writing easier
starts with preparation, and it is to this we turn in the next

Key points
• Remember that communication has inherent dangers;
clear communication needs to be well considered.
• Reports will only achieve their purpose if the writer is
clear about what he or she is seeking to achieve.
• The reader is more important than the writer; write for
others, not for yourself.
• Beware old bad habits and work to establish good ones.
• Reports are potentially powerful tools – powerful in
action terms, and powerful in contributing to personal

Creating a good report

In this chapter, ahead of considering anything about the actual
process of getting words onto paper, we look at the construction
– the ‘shape’ – of a good report. There are two considerations
What makes it work for the reader?
What assists you to compile it quickly and easily?
Of these, the first is the most important, but the factors involved
luckily act positively in both cases. The starting point to thinking
here is clear.

Setting clear objectives
The most important thing to settle initially is simply why the
report is being written. What is it for? Few reports are just ‘about’
something. They may, of course, have various intentions – to
inform, motivate and so on, as mentioned in the previous
chapter – but what matters most is the overall objectives. And

26 How to Write Reports and Proposals

this in turn means you must be clear what you want the end
result to be after the report is delivered and read.
For example, it is unlikely to be a clear objective to write
something ‘about the possibility of the office relocating’. It may
be valid to write something to explain why this may be necessary,
compare the relative merits of different solutions and
recommend the best option. Even that may need more specifics
within it, spelling out the advantages/disadvantages to different
groups: staff, customers etc, who may each be affected in
different ways.
Objectives should be defined from the standpoint of readers.
You need to consider:
• which particular people the report is for;
• whether the group is homogeneous or if multiple needs
must be met;
• the reasons these people want the report;
• what they want in it, and in what detail;
• what they do not want;
• the result they look for (what they want to understand,
what action they want to take, or what decision they
want to be able to make).
It follows that it may well help to know something about the
recipients of any report that you write. You may, of course, know
them well; for example, they may be colleagues that you work
with closely. If not, ask yourself:
• What kind of people are they (eg male/female, young/
• How well do you know them?
• What is their experience of the report’s topic?
• What is their level of knowledge regarding the topic?
• What is their likely attitude to it (eg welcoming/
• What is their personal involvement (ie how do the
issues affect them)?


Creating a Good Report

• How do they rank the importance of the topic?
• Are they likely to find the topic interesting?
• Are they likely to act as a result of reading it?
Everything that follows, what you write, how you write it and
how you arrange it, is dependent on this first premise – a clear
objective is literally the foundation upon which a good report is
based. We will return to this, and to exactly how you set such an
objective, in considering preparation for writing in the next
chapter. Meantime we turn to the actual shape of the report itself.

A sound structure
The simplest structure one can imagine is a beginning, a middle
and an end. Indeed this is what a report must consist of, but the
argument or case it presents may be somewhat more complex.
This falls naturally into four parts:

Setting out the situation.
Describing the implications.
Reviewing the possibilities.
Making a recommendation.

The two structures can coexist comfortably, as shown graphically
in Figure 2.1.
An example helps spell out the logical way an argument
needs to be presented if it is to be got over clearly. Imagine an
organisation with certain communication problems; a report
making suggestions to correct this might follow the following
broad sequence:
1. The situation: this might refer to both the quantity and
importance of written communication around, and
outside, the organisation. Also to the fact that writing
skills were poor, and no standards were in operation, nor


How to Write Reports and Proposals







Figure 2.1 The two structures of a report

had any training ever been done to develop skills or link
them to recognised models that would be acceptable
around the organisation.
2. The implications: these might range from a loss of
productivity (because documents took too long to create
and had to constantly be referred back for clarification), to
inefficiencies or worse resulting from misunderstood
communications. It could also include dilution or damage
to image because of poor documents circulating outside
the organisation, perhaps to customers.

29 Creating a Good Report

3. The possibilities: here, as with any argument, there might
be many possible courses of action, all with their own mix
of pros and cons. To continue the example, these might
range from limiting report writing to a small core group of
people, to reducing paperwork completely or setting up a
training programme and subsequent monitoring system to
ensure some improvement took place.
4. The recommendation: here the ‘best’ option needs to be set
out. Or, in some reports, a number of options must be
reviewed from which others can choose.
Recommendations need to be specific, addressing exactly
what should be done, by whom and when, alongside such
details as cost and logistics.
At all stages generalisations should be avoided. Reports should
contain facts, evidence, and sufficient ‘chapter and verse’ for
those in receipt of them to see them as an appropriate basis for
decision or action.
With the overall shape of the argument clearly in mind we
can look in more detail at the shape of the report itself. The way
in which it flows through from the beginning to the end is
intended to carry the argument, make it easy to follow and to
read, and to make it interesting too, as necessary, along the way.
The three parts fit, unsurprisingly, the old and useful maxim
about communications, usually abbreviated to: ‘Tell ’em, tell ’em
and tell ’em’. In full this says: Tell people what you are going to
tell them – the introduction; tell them in detail – the body of the
report; and then tell them what you have told them – or

First, the beginning
This must start by addressing the stance of the readers. What will
they be thinking as they start reading? Will it be interesting?
Readable? Will it help me? Is it important? And will it distract them


How to Write Reports and Proposals

from anything else going on around them, engaging their
concentration so that they give it their attention?
They have their own agenda, wanting the report to be
succinct, etc, as mentioned earlier; essentially they will only give
it real consideration if they find it understandable, interesting
and a good fit with their situation. They do not want to find it
inappropriate. It should not: confuse them, blind them with
science/technicalities or jargon, lose them in an impenetrable
structure (or lack of it), or talk down to them.
Judgements are made very quickly. In the first few lines a
view is adopted that colours their reading of the rest of the
document. First impressions last, as the old saying has it, so this
stage is very important and may need disproportionate thought
to get it phrased and constructed just right.
The beginning must act as an introduction, which must:
• set the scene (this can include linking to terms of
reference or past discussions that prompted the report
to be written);
• state the topic and theme (and maybe treatment);
• make the objectives clear;
• begin to get into the topic, creating a thread that helps
draw the reader through the first part to the core of the
• position itself as appropriate for the readers (who must
not feel they are, as it were, eavesdropping on
something meant for others).
At the same time, the beginning will inevitably say something
about the writer, and therefore needs to reflect anything you
want readers to feel (that you are expert, professional or
whatever) and not put out any untoward messages (too much
jargon may say ‘this person does not understand the needs of
their readers’). So this element must be injected, something we
return to in Chapter 4.
If it is to earn a reading, a report must get quickly to the
point. This does not preclude setting the scene. A report might


Creating a Good Report

start: ‘This report sets out to demonstrate how the organisation
can cut costs by 10 per cent, without sacrificing quality.’ After
this, and perhaps a little more, having got readers wanting to
know how, it may be necessary to go back and set the scene in
terms that reflect an analysis of current expenditure. But people
know where the report is going – they will go through the text
more easily once a desirable intention has been spelt out.
The tone of a report also needs to show itself at this first
stage. Just as presenters need to establish a rapport with their
audience, so a report receives continuing attention if it comes
over as necessary, useful, written for a purpose, written with
conviction, written by someone the reader wants to listen to, and
– above all – written with understanding of, and concern for, its
Get off to a good start and any continuing task is then often
easier. This certainly applies to writing. Feeling you have got a
good beginning breeds confidence in what must follow. And so
too with reading: if a document starts well, people read on,
wanting the rest to match the early acceptability. There are
plenty of frustrations in corporate life; something that looks set
to make life a little easier is very soon recognised and
One of the reasons that what is often called the executive
summary (a summary that is placed at the beginning rather than
the end) often works well, is that it meets many of the criteria for
the beginning now stated. It interests the reader who then reads
on to discover the detail and see how and why the stated
conclusions have been arrived at. The question of summaries is
reviewed further in Chapter 6.

The middle
This is the core of the document. It is where the greatest amount
of the content is to be found, and hence it has the greatest need
for structure and organisation. The key aims here are to:

32 How to Write Reports and Proposals

• put over the detail of the report’s message;
• maintain, indeed develop, interest;
• ensure clarity and a manner appropriate to the reader.
It may be necessary to go further. It is here that the report may
seek acceptance and, conversely, set out to counter people
disagreeing with or rejecting what it has to say. At the same time
any complexity must be kept manageable. Doing this necessitates
the simple practice of taking one point at a time. So here,
attempting to practise what I preach, are a number of points all
aimed at keeping this core section on track.

Putting over the content
• A logical structure: selecting, and describing to your
readers, a way through the content (eg describing
something in chronological order).
• ‘Signposting’ intentions: knowing broadly what is
coming (and why) makes reading easier. This is why
many documents need a contents page, but it can also
be done within the text – ‘We will review the project in
terms of three key factors: timing, cost and staffing.
First, timing...’ (perhaps followed by the heading
‘Timing’). This is something that is difficult to overdo,
the clarity it promotes and the feeling of having what is
being read in context of what is to come is appreciated.
• Using headings (and subheadings): this is not only
effectively a form of signposting, it breaks up the text
visually and makes it easier to work through a page
(contrast the style of a modern business book, such as
this, with the kind of dense textbook many of us
suffered with at school).
• Appropriate language: this is important at every stage
(see Chapter 4).
• Using graphics (visual graphic devices): this
encompasses two types of factor – such things as bold


Creating a Good Report

type, capital letters, etc; and illustrations, including
graphs, tables, charts, etc. Both promote clarity and are
dealt with in Chapter 7.

Gaining acceptance
This is a discreet aim and can be assisted in a number of ways, for
• Relate to specific groups: general points and argument
may not be so readily accepted as those addressed to a
specific group. There is no reason why a report cannot
do both, with some paragraphs or points addressed
generally and others starting: ‘For those new to the
organisation’, or ‘...those in the sales department...’, etc.
• Provide proof: certainly if acceptance is desired, you
need to offer something other than your say-so,
especially if you could be seen as having a vested
interest of some sort. So such things as opinion,
research, statistics, and tests from elsewhere strengthen
your case. Remember there is a link between the
acceptability of the source and the force it brings to
bear, so you may need to choose carefully exactly how
best to make a point.
• Anticipate objections: there is no merit in ignoring
negative points you are sure will come into readers’
minds as the report is read, or they will simply
invalidate what it says. Such are often better met head
on, indeed signposted: ‘Some will be asking how... ? So
in the next three paragraphs I will address exactly that.’
The middle section of a report needs to be visibly linked to the
beginning and the end. It should pick up neatly from points
made in the introduction, especially if they have bearing on the
report’s structure (which should be consistent throughout). And
it should link equally neatly to the end. This means the thread of


How to Write Reports and Proposals

content needs to weave its way throughout the report and across
the divide between the three main segments.
The end result is well described as seamless. The content
– the case it presents – flows through and everything structural
supports that rather than competes with it. The end result is
something essentially readable, and also easy to follow.
One final point is worth adding before proceeding to deal
with the end. It is sometimes a nice touch if the text towards the
end of the middle acknowledges the stage that has been reached:
‘Last, a final point before the summary...’, as was done in this

The end
First some dangers:
• Some reports seem to avoid the end. The middle runs
out of structure. It deteriorates into something that
effectively keeps saying ‘and another thing’. This can be
distracting and annoying.
• Avoid false endings: I saw a report not so long ago that
had the word ‘finally’, albeit used in slightly different
ways, three times amongst the final paragraphs.
• Beware of overshooting the structure: wandering on
beyond the last heading yet failing actually to move into
the end section. This can add a paragraph or several
pages, and consist of unnecessary repetition or
irrelevant digression; all such is a distraction.
So what positively should you do here? The end has three
particular intents:
• To reach and present a conclusion (this reflects the type
of document involved and the nature of the argument
that it may present).


Creating a Good Report

• To pull together and summarise the content.
• To end positively, on a ‘high note’ or with a flourish. Or,
if that is overstating it somewhat (and many reports are
on routine matters rather than exciting ones), at least to
end with some power and authority, rather than tail
Summarising is not the easiest thing to do succinctly and
effectively. Precisely because of this, it represents a particular
opportunity. If it is done well, it impresses. Perversely, this may
actually help in getting the report the attention it deserves.
Realistically we know that many people glance at the end of a
report before deciding to read it through. If the summary is a
good sample of what is to come then it will reinforce that
A summary develops out of the content most easily if the
sequence and structure has been sensible, sound and logical. A
summary is, after all, the natural conclusion of many cases.
However you summarise, it is inherent to its acceptance that you
keep this part of the report comparatively short. This does not
necessarily mean that a summary must only be a few lines; it is
often the case that a long, complex, report will need more than
this by way of summary – the important thing is that the
summary appears, and is, an appropriate length compared
with the whole report. It is the need to make a summary
brief as well as encapsulate the essence of the content
and conclusions that make it difficult to compose without
some consideration.
The end section is a part of the report where
disproportionate time, editing and checking may be useful.
Certainly it is a waste to slave at length over a long report,
and then allow its effectiveness to be diluted (or at worst
destroyed) by inattention to this vital stage.

36 How to Write Reports and Proposals

After the end
It is worth noting that ‘the end’ may not be. In other words there
may be pages that follow the summary and conclusions. Prime
amongst such are appendices, which can be used to take certain
discrete areas of detail out of the main core of the content. This
may allow these areas to be dealt with in more detail, but the role
of such pages is as much to keep the middle manageable and stop
it from becoming too long and having its key arguments
submerged in endless detail.

George had not been too happy to be given the job of
organising the office rearrangement, even though it was
for the best of reasons; growth – and higher profit
– meant accommodating more people; especially in
customer services. He knew many people were a bit
worried about how the changes would affect them, so,
determined to get things right, he set to with a
He was nothing if not thorough. He measured every
room, he counted everything that moved and
catalogued everything that did not. He mapped every
electric wire and noted who used what pieces of
equipment. Then he set about writing a report of his
findings and suggestions.
   Amazed at just how much there was to record, he
had the good sense to check his draft with colleagues.
They were appalled. People will react badly they
suggested: ‘People don’t want all that detail. It took me
10 minutes to even find where I was going to sit and I
still don’t know why I’m moving – you need to look at it
from other people’s points of view.’
   Chastened, George went ‘back to the drawing board’.
He rewrote the report, beginning with an overview of


Creating a Good Report

how the changes would help the organisation. He set
out a brief, clear description of how each department
was affected, stressing the advantages. And he made
clear what had to be done, by who, and when to
implement the changes.
   Three weeks later, although there were, of course,
some questions and a few suspicions, all concerned had
been moved without a hitch and everything was running
well. But it was nearly very different.

Key points
• Every good report has clear objectives.
• The readers’ perspective is more important than the
• There should be a clear, logical structure to the
argument (situation, implications, possibilities,
• There should be a clear shape to the report (beginning,
middle and end).
• The end result should flow, be readable throughout and
be ‘seamless’.


Preparing to write

Next we look at how you get set to write something in a way
that will be likely to make it effective, and specifically at how
you start the actual process of writing. Knowing that they have
to write a report can prompt different responses in different
people, such as: put it off, doodle, write some central part
quickly and ahead of the rest ‘because I know that’. Whatever
you do now, whatever your current habits are, you might
want to consider the exercise below before continuing
with this chapter.

It might be useful, at this point, to have something that
you have written by you as you read on, and to think
particularly about how it got written. In other words
what procedure and actions, in what order, went into
drafting it.
   You can do this is three ways:


How to Write Reports and Proposals

• Wait until you have a drafting job to do, do it, keep a
note of how you went about it and have it by you as you
read on.
• Write something (or at least start to) as an exercise
and use it as a guideline to your current style and
• Locate something (preferably recent, so that you still
have the details of it in mind) from the files, and make
some notes as to how you composed it to keep by you.
Few areas of business skill can be acquired through some magic
formula, and report writing is no exception. However,
preparation perhaps comes close to acting in this way. It really is
the foundation upon which successful report writing is based.
Preparation allows you to do two things. First, to create a report
not only that you feel content with, but that has a clear purpose
and is regarded as useful by its readers. As has been said, the
ultimate measure of a good report is whether it achieves the
outcome you wish.
Second, a systematic approach to preparation and writing
will save you time. This is a worthy result in its own right. Which
of us does not have too much to do? When I first had to do a
significant volume of writing, and thus looked into what made it
work well in order to improve my own practice, the way I worked
did change. It was a matter of some surprise to me that, whatever
effect this may have had on what I wrote, I found I was getting my
writing done more quickly. This experience has been found also
by many people I have met through training on this topic; and is,
I am sure, something you may find too.
In this chapter, therefore, we review the actual process of
preparation and getting the words down. If this is put alongside
what was covered in the previous chapter about the shape and
structure of a report, then together the points covered begin to
provide a blueprint to best practice. First things first. We will start
with what you should not do.
Do not, faced with the task of writing what looks like being a
20-page report, get out a clean sheet of paper and immediately


Preparing to Write

start writing the first words: ‘1. Introduction. This report sets
out...’ Thinking must proceed writing.

Why this report?
Like so much in business, a report needs clear objectives. Let us
be specific about that. Objectives are not what you wish to say,
they are what you wish to achieve. Put simply, the task is not to
write, say, ‘about the new policy’, it is to ensure people
understand the proposed change and how it is intended to work.
This in turn is designed to ensure people accept the necessity for
it and are prompted to undertake their future work in a way that
fits with the new policy.
Once this is clear in mind the writing is already likely to be
easier, and we might move on to specifying that such a report
needs to deal with five main topics:
• Some background to the change.
• An explanation of why it is necessary (perhaps
emphasising the good things it will lead to).
• Exactly what it is and how it works.
• The effects on the individual.
• What action people need to take.
With a more specific situation in mind (perhaps the topic
you took for the exercise above), objectives can be formed
precisely if, as the much-quoted acronym has it, they are
SMART. That is:



How to Write Reports and Proposals

As an example, imagine you are setting up a training course on
the subject of writing reports/proposals. What objectives would
you set? The following follows the SMART principle:
The course should:
• Enable participants to ensure future reports are written
in a way that will be seen by their readers as
appropriate, informative and, above all, readable
• Ensure measurable action occurs after the session – eg
future proposals might be measured by the number of
recipients who subsequently confirmed agreement.
• Be appropriate for the chosen group – eg an
inexperienced group might need a longer and more
detailed programme than one made up of people with
more experience – and thus have achievable objectives.
• Be not just achievable but realistic – eg here the time
away from the job might be compared with the
potential results of the course to ensure attendance
was desirable.
• Be timed: when is the workshop? in a month or in six
months’ time? and how long will it last? 1 day? 2 days?
Results cannot come until it has taken place.
In addition, objectives should be phrased more in terms of
readers than of the writer, and overall the following two key
questions must be answered clearly:
Why am I writing this?
What am I trying to achieve?
To check if an answer to either is too vague to be useful, say of it
‘which means that…’ and see if this leads to a more specific
statement. For example, you might say simply that such a course
is designed to improve report-writing skills. So far so good; but
what does this mean? It means that documents will be less timeconsuming to prepare than in the past, more reader-oriented and


Preparing to Write

more likely to achieve their objectives. This line of thinking can
be pursued until objectives are absolutely clear.
Once your objectives are set satisfactorily you can proceed to
the real business of getting something down on paper, though
remember this does not mean starting at the beginning and
writing to the end.

Research prior to preparation
It is important to ensure that you are in a position to write
the report before you start. This may mean some research.
On occasion this is too grand a word for it. You simply need
a few moments to collect your thoughts, perhaps to pull
together a number of papers and proceed with what that
puts in your mind.
The danger is that this is all you do (if that) when research
must actually mean something more elaborate and timeconsuming. But make no mistake, if it needs to be done, it needs
to be done. The time equation here is well proven, more time on
research, and preparation, means less on writing – because the
writing flows more smoothly. And the alternative may be a report
that is less effective than you want, or which fails in its purpose.
So let us see what necessary research must be done as a
specific aspect of overall preparation. The key question to start
with is one of information, ask yourself:
• What do I need to know in order to write the report?
Then, to assemble the information, you need to consider sources.
This may involve quite a list. So, for example, ask yourself:
• Which people do I need to consult (within and without
the organisation)?
• To which published or written sources do I need to
refer? (These may include anything from an earlier


How to Write Reports and Proposals

report, a research study, a book, a magazine or just a
You may also need to put some order, and specify some order of
importance, into the equation. It is certainly not suggested that
the first step before writing anything is six months of talking,
reading and making notes. Only a finite amount of material will
be useful, but you may need to cast the net wide initially, at least
in terms of considering what might be useful.
In this way you can get alongside you the information:
opinion, facts, figures, notes, summaries, etc that you will need
as you start to write.
Having gathered the information and screened out that
which is superfluous, you need to organise it. The easiest way is
to arrange it into some appropriate sub-groups: everything to do
with costs, or with timing, say, depending on what the overall
subject may be. This makes the task of reviewing the material
more manageable, then you can move on with a neat set of
materials to hand, rather than a large, random heap.

Mary has a report to write and a tight deadline. She
knows it is important and also that she cannot do the
work without some research. With other pressures
looming, and the deadline ever-present, she opts for the
minimum amount of prior checking and gets down to
   Half-way through she realises the draft is going off
the rails. She has to pause to get some more references,
again to talk to one or two colleagues and to spend time
on the telephone to an outside agency. The result is that
the writing takes place in fits and starts. The flow is
difficult to sustain, and despite the right content being
included, with the deadline now upon her she has to
send off the document knowing that it could be better.


Preparing to Write

   In fact the lesson is not that some additional
revisions would have helped, but that more time up
front would have reduced the writing time and made
the end result better, while still hitting the deadline.
Next time she will know better.

A systematic approach
It is a rare person who can create a good report without making a
few notes first, and frankly the complexity of many such
documents demands a little more than this. Sometimes perhaps
all that is necessary is a dozen words on the back of the
proverbial envelope, but you need to be very sure that you are not
missing anything. Unless you are thoroughly prepared, the
chances are that whatever you create as your first draft will be
somewhat off target, and time must then be spent tinkering and
reworking to get it into order.
Another danger is compounded by deadlines. And who never
has to work to tighter deadlines than they would like? Too often
skimping preparation, combined with facing a pressing deadline,
means that a writer must submit a report knowing that an
additional review and some more editing would make it more
likely to do its job well.
So, to encompass all possibilities and degrees of complexity,
the following six-stage approach sets out a methodology that will
cope with any kind of document (it is the way this book began life
too). It is recommended only by its practicality. It works. It will
make the job quicker and more certain. It can install the right
habits and rapidly becomes something you can work with,
utilising its methods more or less comprehensively depending
on the circumstances.
The six stages are now reviewed in turn, alongside an
example. To provide an example that is straightforward and easy
for everyone to relate to, imagine that you have to write

46 How to Write Reports and Proposals

something about your job. To make it more interesting, and give
it a specific objective, imagine that what needs to be written is to
attract internal candidates to apply for your job; because (we can
imagine what we like) you are to be promoted – once a successful
applicant is found.

Stage 1: listing


Preparing to Write

Stage 1: listing
This consists of ignoring all thoughts about sequence or
structure, and simply listing everything – every significant point
– that might be desirable or necessary to include (though perhaps
bearing in mind the kind of report and level of detail involved).
This, a process that draws on what is sometimes called
‘mindmapping’, gets all the elements involved down on paper. It
may need more than one session to complete it; certainly you
will find one thought leading to another as the picture fills out.
Rather than set this out as a neat list down the page, many find it
more useful to accommodate the developing picture to adopt a
freestyle approach.
In this way points are noted, almost at random, around a
sheet. This allows you to end up able to view the totality of your
notes in one glance, so if it is necessary you should use a sheet
larger than standard A4 paper. It is also best done on paper, not
on screen (the next stages make clear why).
The stage 1 box relates this stage to the example to show
something of what is done.

Stage 2: sorting
Next, you can proceed to rearrange what you have noted and
bring some logic and organisation to bear on it. This process
may raise some questions as well as answer others, so it is still
not giving you the final shape of the report. This stage is often
best (and most quickly) done by annotating the original list. A
second colour may help now as you begin to put things in order,
make logical groupings and connections, as well as allowing
yourself to add and subtract points and refine the total picture
as you go.
The example continues in the stage 2 box.


How to Write Reports and Proposals

Stage 2: sorting


Preparing to Write

Stage 3: arranging
This stage arranges your ‘jottings’ into a final order of contents,
and here you can decide upon the precise sequence and
arrangements you will follow for the report itself. For the sake of
neatness, and thus to give yourself a clear guideline to follow as
you move on, it is often worth rewriting the sheet you were left
with after stage 2 (indeed, now so many people work directly
with keyboard and screen, this is the point to transfer to that if
you wish, as what you are creating now is a sequential list).
At this stage you can also form a view and note specifically
the emphasis that will be involved. For example: What is most
important? Where is most detail necessary? What needs
illustrating (this may involve anything from a graph to an
anecdote)? What will take most space? What, if anything, should
go in an appendix?
Sometimes there is a fear that we lack material. The Board, or
whoever, is expecting some quantity of analysis, consideration or
thinking represented, and we worry we will have difficulty filling
three pages. Usually the reverse is true. And this is the stage at
which to prune, if necessary, so that what is included is well
chosen, but not inappropriately long.
This is true at all levels. Contain the number of points to be
made and the amount to be said about each. Of course, you need
to write sufficient material to make your case, but do not risk
submerging it in a plethora of irrelevant detail or subsidiary
points that are actually unnecessary digressions.

Stage 4: review
At this point have a final look over what you now plan to do –
review the ‘arranged’ guideline. It will be quicker and easier to
make final amendments now than when you finally print out 20
or 30 pages of draft. It may help to ‘sleep on it’, carrying out a final
review having distanced yourself from what you have done so far,
at least for a moment. You can get so close to something that you


How to Write Reports and Proposals

are working hard at that you cannot see the wood for the trees.
One of the things you want to be clear about is the broad picture
– if this is right, then the details will slot in much more easily.
Do not worry if you still want to make amendments at this
stage. Add things, delete things, move things about (rewrite your
guidelines if necessary) – but make sure that when you move on
to write something you do so confident that the outline
represents your considered view of the content and will act as a
really useful guide.
It is worth pausing here to recap, at least in terms of making a
comment about the process so far. For many a document, this
whole process (ie stages 1–4) will only take five or ten minutes,
and that is time well spent, as it will reduce the time taken once
you start to write. As you develop your own style for this sort of
preparation, you will find you can shorthand the process a little,
with some documents able to be written from the first freehand
style list. If real complexity is involved, of course, it may take
longer. It is also a procedure that works well if debate and
consultation among colleagues is necessary. Stage 1 can even be
done in a group with a flipchart or overhead projector being used
to collect the first thoughts.
With all that has been done in mind, it is now time to write.

Stage 5: write
What else is there to say? This stage means writing it. Leaving the
details of how you use language aside (for Chapter 4), there are
still in fact a few points to make here – according to my plan!
First, it is worth a word or two about method. Do you write,
type or what? There may be little choice here. In many
organisations the word processing computer has moved in and
the secretary has moved out. You type it. This may take some
getting used to, but in due course it has real advantages – at least
for certain kinds of writing – and affects productivity and
flexibility. Laptop computers have expanded the possibilities
here, and everyone who travels on business can, if they wish,


Preparing to Write

work on the move (some of the first draft of this book was typed,
on a Sunday between two training courses in Singapore, and
some on the journey there).
As a considerable doubter when all this started, it is a sign of
the change that is possible that I now find it harder to write
something of any length longhand than I do to type it. Despite my
keyboard skills being less than perfect, my thinking is now
attuned to the keyboard and screen.
What else might you do? Many still originate something like
a report by writing longhand and then have someone else type it.
There is nothing wrong with that. One tip: leave plenty of space.
For most ordinary mortals, not everything is perfect first time.
You will want to backtrack, to make amendments, add or move
sections, so give yourself room to do so with reasonable neatness
– your secretary will appreciate it, and be able to work from it
more quickly. You also need to have a clear way of signposting
exactly how you want it arranged. It is easy enough to indicate a
new paragraph, but there is a range of other factors such as bold
type, indented paragraphs, and so on, that need to be specified
Alternatively, you may dictate it. With a long document this
is not truly good for productivity and not everyone can keep their
thoughts sufficiently straight to make it work well; but it suits
some people and that is what is important. Voice recognition
software is still less than perfect (though some people claim to
use it successfully) – for many people the restriction on how
quickly they can get things down is that of how quickly they can
decide what to put down!
One day perhaps there will be computers so sophisticated
you can simply talk to them, press a key and be delivered of the
typed report just as you said it. Systems are available now that are
a step in this direction. We will see; but when they work and the
price is right, I will be first in line.
However you opt to work, the job is to get the words down.
This is the bit with the greatest element of chore in it. But it has
to be done and the guidelines you have given yourself by
preparing carefully will ease and speed the process. A couple of


How to Write Reports and Proposals

tips may help: first, choose your moment. I certainly find there
are moments when I cannot seem to... when I am unable…
when it is difficult... to string two coherent sentences together
end to end. There are other times when things flow – when
you do not dare stop in case the flow does too, and when you
cannot get the words down fast enough to keep up with your
If possible – deadlines may have an effect here – do not
struggle with the former. If the writing is really not flowing –
leave things. Stop. For a moment, overnight, or while you
walk around the block or make a cup of tea. Many people
confirm that when the words simply will not flow, a pause
But also allow sufficient time: once you are under way and
words are flowing smoothly it may upset the process to leave it.
If you feel you need an uninterrupted hour, or more, try to
organise things that way. It may both save time in the long run
and help you produce a better report.
On the other hand, do not stop when you get stuck over
some – maybe important – detail. This is the second tip – do
not be too distracted by small hang-ups. Say you need a
heading, it must be clear, pithy and make people sit up, take
notice and want to read on. You just cannot think of one.
Leave it and write on. You can always come back to it (and
when you do, who knows, you sometimes think of just what
you want in a moment).
The danger is that instead you dither, puzzle over it, waste
time, get nowhere, but get so bogged down with it that you lose
everything you had in your mind about the overall shape of the
report or the section of it you are working on. This is true of
words, phrases, sentences and even whole sections. Mark clearly
what you need to come back to (so that you never forget to check
it again!).
That said, the job here is to get the whole thing down on
paper. It probably will not be perfect, but you should not feel bad
about that; a surprisingly small number of people can create a
document word for word as they want it first time. Practice will


Preparing to Write

get you closer and closer, and things you are familiar with will be
easier than something that is new to you or pushes your
knowledge or expertise to the limits.
Some revision is usually necessary though; hence the next

Stage 6: edit
If you have prepared and written well this stage may often be
comparatively simple. With something new or complex more
revision is necessary. There are a number of points here that help
make this stage practical but not protracted:
• If possible, leave a draft a while before re-reading it. You
can get very close to something and, without a pause,
start to see only what you expect (or hope) is there. It is
often much quicker to finish off something in this way
than trying to undertake the whole job, one stage back
to back with the next.
• Read things over, out loud is best. You will hear how
something sounds and that reflects what readers will
feel as they read. When you do this, you will find
that certain things – such as overlong sentences –
jump out at you very clearly (in that case, you run
out of breath).
• Get a colleague to read it. A fresh look often casts light
on areas you have convinced yourself are fine, for no
other reason than you cannot think of a better way of
expressing the material. Some people habitually do this
on a swap basis. Because it is time-consuming, they ask
for a view of one thing in return for doing the same for
someone else. This can work well; better if you do it
• Worry about the detail. Oscar Wilde said: ‘I was working
on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and
took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back’.


How to Write Reports and Proposals

Actually the small details are important. For example,
you may create greater impact by breaking a sentence
into two, with a short one following a longer one. It
makes a more powerful point.
And, finally, if you are word processing on a computer, do not
trust the spellchecker 100 per cent. Greater accuracy throughout
most of a document is matched with a tendency towards errors in
things like names. You also have to watch seemingly close words:
there/their, effect/affect and the like – as these will not be flagged
by most systems either (you may have picked the wrong word,
but spelt it correctly).
Editing is an important stage. There is a story told of a now
famous operatic singer, invited to perform at a major gala concert
very early in his career. He was thrilled to be there, and flattered
to find, having sung his particular aria, that he was called back
for several encores. He said as much to the stage manager as he
was pushed back on stage for the fourth time. ‘No, no Senor’ he
was told ‘I am afraid they will ask you to do it again and again –
until you get it right!’ So too with editing. If you need to read it
over three times, so be it.
Of course, you could perhaps go on making changes for ever
and finally you have to let something go. But more than one look
may pay dividends, and if the end result achieves what you want
then the process is justified.
We have noted that spending time on preparation will reduce
writing time. Similarly it is usually more time-efficient to crack
through a draft and then make some changes, rather than labour
over your work trying to make every line perfect as you first
write. Like much that is involved here, habit plays a part. What
matters is to find an approach for working through all of this that
suits you; and prompts a thorough job that produces the end
result you want.


Preparing to Write

At this point it may be worth looking back at whatever
report of yours you had in mind or worked on if you
paused for the exercise at the start of this chapter. Take
time to revisit the preparation process, following the
systematic approach now laid out. You may well find that
if you go through it again you will produce a content
guideline that better represents your intentions (and a
clearer objective?) than was the case if your earlier
method was more ad hoc.

Shaking off old habits
Writing is, as has been said, very much a question of habit. It can
be difficult to get right away from what you may admit is a
slightly pedestrian or formula approach even when you want to
do so. One thing that may help kick start you onto a new path,
one that I have found helpful in training situations, is to take a
completely different approach just to make you do things
This involves writing something with an, albeit
inappropriate, humour to it. If you are going to make it funny, it
cannot be pedestrian. You have to come at it another way and you
have to use different language and vocabulary; and some
adjectives. The sales letter that follows is from a training exercise;
those attending a training course were asked to write something
funny or silly. The topic reflects the industry involved, which was

56 How to Write Reports and Proposals

Dear Decrepit Geriatric,
Grab your readies and book now. A scintillating Spanish
extravaganza awaits all those over 65 years old. For only
£149.99 per person (including taxes, check in charges and
two quick uses of the plane’s toilet) you can fly off to the
sun in a specially adapted Douglas Dakota (leased only
recently from Lagos Air); and for a small additional sum
you can take a suitcase, provided it weighs less than 10
The holiday delights are legion: the hotel El Fawlty is nearly
finished (the building workers are due out by the end of
the month), the entertainment is lavish. We offer
complimentary octogenarian hang gliding, with a small
charge only for those whose wheelchairs need minding
while they are aloft, high-stake poker by night and
triathlon training by day. At dusk you can enjoy high-priced
drinks on the terrace and watch the sun sinking below the
horizon through the clouds of cement dust hanging in the
air, while the local youth practice their wheelies on the
road below the terrace. Don’t worry, you will not be able to
hear their motor bikes, the sound from the flight path
drowns it out. There is food too; it’s good, at least the
cockroaches seem to like it.
Just complete the form below. Don’t delay, do it right now,
you might be dead by May. See you suckers soon.


Preparing to Write

I will not quote more, if only because it will not win any comedy
awards, but you get the idea. It is only possible to write this kind
of spoof letter in a language and style that is different from any
normal business style. Having to do this, to concentrate on
making it funny in some way, gets you out of your writing rut. It
can be a useful exercise and a step to changing habits and writing
more appropriately and more expressively in future.

Key points
• Be sure why you are writing and set clear objectives.
• Bear the reader in mind throughout the process.
• Handle preparation systematically, moving from an
overview of possible content to a tight guideline to
follow as you write.
• Try and write uninterrupted.
• Do not be afraid to edit (or to try it out on someone


The power of language

If you undertake to engender a totality of meaning that
corresponds with the cognition of others seeking to intake a
communication from the content you display in a report there is
a greater likelihood of subsequent action being that which you
You are correct. That is not a good start. If I want to say: ‘If
you write well, people will understand and be more likely to react
as you wish’ – then I should say just that. But it makes a good
point with which to start this chapter. Language and how you use
it matters. Exactly how you put things has a direct bearing on
how they are received; and that in turn has a direct bearing on
how well a report succeeds in its objectives.

Cultivating a style
It is clear that language makes a difference. But this is a serious
understatement; language can make a very considerable
difference. And it can make a difference in many different ways,
as this chapter will show.

60 How to Write Reports and Proposals

How you write is partly taste, style and also partly habit.
Unless you studied English Language at college or university you
may have come across little about how to write, and once in
business probably did what many did and found yourself
following the prevailing style. How many people faced with
writing their first report, and asking what it should be like, were
simply given a past one and told ‘something like that’? Very many,
I suspect, and often it was then a case of the blind leading the
blind. It is this process that, as much as anything, has led to a
continuation of a common, rather over-formal, bureaucratic style
that does many a report no good.
How you need to write must stem as much as anything from
the view your intended readers have of what they want to read. Or
in some cases are prepared to read, because – be honest – reading
some business documents is always going to be something of a
chore; even reading some of those you write.

Readers’ expectations
Consider four broad elements first. Readers want documents to
be understandable, readable, straightforward and natural. Each of
these is commented on below.

Clarity has been mentioned already. Its necessity may seem to go
without saying, though some, at least, of what one sees of
prevailing standards suggests the opposite. It is all too easy to
find everyday examples of wording that is less than clear. A
favourite of mine is a sign you see in some shops: ‘Ears pierced
while you wait’. Is there some other way? Maybe there has been a
technological development of which I am unaware.
Clarity is assisted by many of the elements mentioned in this
chapter, but three factors help immensely:


The Power of Language

• Using the right words: for example, are you writing
about ‘recommendations’ or ‘options’, about ‘objectives’
(desired results) or ‘strategies’ (routes to achieving
objectives), and when do you use ‘aims’ or ‘goals’?
• Using the right phrases: what is ‘24-hour service’
exactly, other than not sufficiently specific? Ditto
‘personal service’? Is this just saying it is done by
people? If so it is hardly a glimpse of anything but the
obvious; perhaps it needs expanding to explain the
nature, and perhaps excellence, of the particular service
• Selecting and arranging words to ensure your meaning
is clear: for example, saying ‘at this stage, the
arrangement is...’ implies that later it will be something
else when this might not be intended. Saying something
like ‘people feel that…’ without making clear who and
how many, may leave you open to charges of
exaggeration if you mean, in fact, only that ‘someone
once said…’ Saying: ‘After working late into the night,
the report will be with you this afternoon’, seems to
imply (because of the sequence and arrangement of
words) that it is the report that was working late.
While this book is not intended to teach grammar, the following
section explores the issue of choosing the right words a little
further and gives some more examples.

The difference a word makes
Saying something is quite nice is so bland that, if applied to
something that is hugely enjoyable it understates it so
much as to be almost insulting. The emphasis may be
inadequate but at least the word ‘nice’ makes it clear that
something positive is being said. Blandness is certainly to
be avoided; it is unlikely to add power to your writing,
choosing the wrong word is another matter. That might
confuse, upset – or worse.

62 How to Write Reports and Proposals

   The following examples are designed to show the
danger. Let us start with a couple of simple everyday
words: comic and comical. Mean much the same thing? No.
Something comic is intended to be funny, whereas
something comical is funny unintentionally.
   More relevant to business documents are the
following: Continuous (unbroken or uninterrupted);
continual (repeated or recurring) – a project might be
continuous (in process all the time), but work on it is
more likely to be continual (unless you never sleep).
   Loath, as in being loath to do something means
reluctance, to loathe is to hate.
   Are you uninterested in a proposal or disinterested in it?
The first implies you are apathetic and care not either
way, the latter means you have nothing to gain from it.
   Similarly dissatisfied and unsatisfied should not be
confused. They mean disappointed and needing more of
something, respectively.
   You might want to do something expeditious (quick and
efficient), but saying it is expedient might not be so well
regarded as it means only that something is convenient
(not always a good reason to do anything).
   Fortuitous implies something happening accidentally;
it does not mean fortunate.
   If you are a practical person then you are effective, if
something is practicable it is merely possible to do, and
pragmatic is something meant to be effective (rather than
proven to be).
   One wrong word may do damage. More, particularly
when closely associated, quickly create nonsense: ‘This
practicable approach will ensure the practicable project
will be continuous, it is fortuitous that I am uninterested
in it and I am sure I will not be unsatisfied to see it start.’
   Of course no inaccurate use of language will help you
put a message over well even if it only annoys rather than
confuses. For example, saying very unique might do –
unique means unlike anything else and cannot be


The Power of Language

qualified in this way; writing 12 noon when noon tells you
everything you need to know; or talking about an ATM
machine when the M stands for machine (a machine
machine?). Some care, maybe even some checking or
study, may be useful.

Readability is difficult to define, but we all know it when we
experience it. Your writing must flow. One point must lead to
another, the writing must strike the right tone, inject a little
variety and, above all, there must be a logical, and visible,
structure to carry the message along. As well as the shape
discussed in the previous chapter, the technique of ‘signposting’
– briefly flagging what is to come – helps in a practical sense to
get the reader understanding where something is going. It makes
them read on, content that the direction is sensible (this section
starts just that way, listing points to come, of which ‘readable’ is
the second). It is difficult to overuse signposting and it can be
utilised at several levels within the text.

In a word (or two) this means simply put. Follow the well-known
acronym KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. This means using:
• Short words: why ‘elucidate’ something when you can
‘explain’? Why ‘reimbursements’ rather than ‘expenses’?
Similarly, although ‘experiment’ and ‘test’ do have
slightly different meanings, in a general sense ‘test’ may
be better; or you could use ‘try’.
• Short phrases: do not say ‘at this moment in time’ when
you mean ‘now’, or ‘respectfully acknowledge’
something when you can simply say ‘thank you for’.
• Short sentences: having too many overlong sentences is
a frequent characteristic of business reports. Short ones

64 How to Write Reports and Proposals

are good. However, they should be mixed in with longer
ones, or reading becomes rather like the action of a
machine gun. Many reports contain sentences that are
overlong, often because they mix two rather different
points. Break these into two and the overall readability
• Short paragraphs: if there are plenty of headings and
bullet points it may be difficult to get this wrong, but
keep an eye on it. Regular and appropriate breaks as the
message build