Josh Wilson | May 14, 2021
The components of a document are like bricks. You need all of them in the right place to build your document. If you get it right, they form a road that guides the reader to your main point. But if you don’t position the bricks carefully, they can build a wall that stops readers understanding your key messages.
Just like a road, if you get one brick in the wrong place, it might look a bit odd but still work. Get too many bricks wrong though, and your readers won’t see the way forward.
Documents need careful planning to make sure they are structured soundly, with the focus on the reader rather than the writer. Plan to show your reader the way by using document structure well.
Everyone needs to know where they’re going. The purpose statement is the foundation of your road — your readers will get lost if it’s confusingly written or absent. A purpose statement is exactly what it says on the tin: a short statement explaining what the document is for.
A purpose statement helps the reader gain an overview of the document and know what to expect from it. In some cases it even helps them confirm whether they’re reading the right document.
Headings are the signposts along your road that show readers where they’re going. The reader can skim them to find the important points in the document. They also allow the reader to pick out which sections will be useful to them, avoiding the frustration of reading irrelevant information.
A statement heading summarises the main point of the text below it. For example, imagine you were writing a report about testing a product.
Instead of a label heading…
…you could write a statement:
Consumer feedback was positive, particularly for the ergonomic design
Have you ever found yourself thinking that a document felt lifeless, like it was written by a robot? That’s probably because the writer used passive voice. In a passive sentence, it’s often not clear who’s doing what. The subject (the person or thing doing an action) is missing from the sentence, or comes after the verb (the action word), so readers can’t clearly tell who did what.
‘Letters will be posted [verb] to participants and focus group meetings will be held [verb] the next week.’
Who’s posting these letters? Who’s holding the focus group meetings? Is the same person doing both things? To clear up these questions, write in the active voice instead.
The good news? To write in the active voice, all you need to do is put the subject before the verb.
‘Tina [subject] will post [verb] the letters to the participants. Bill [subject] will host [verb] the focus group meetings the next week.’
This word order avoids any confusion about who is doing what. It’s why writing in the active voice is one of the easiest ways to make your document clearer.
Not only are long paragraphs and winding sentences difficult to read and understand, they’re also visually unappealing. If you break a page into manageable chunks, readers will find it more inviting and easier to scan. Use headings to help you with this.
Aim to keep your paragraphs to a maximum of 6 lines, and sentences under 20 words.
Your field may require specialised language or technical terms, but explain terms if your reader may not understand them.
Jargon is something to avoid, but make sure you understand what it is. Jargon uses a word differently to its dictionary definition (such as ‘circle back’ instead of ‘return to’, or ‘reach out’ instead of ‘contact’). Jargon goes in and out of fashion, so it may date your writing.
Choose your words carefully so you don’t exclude or alienate readers. Think about whether your reader is in the same specialised field, or a member of the public. Would a passer-by in the street understand what you’ve written?
By now you’ll understand how important it is to get the bricks in the right place. If you want to finish turning the wall into a road, one of these courses might help:
Write Online has a number of courses to help you improve, in your own time.
Business Writing Essentials is our most popular workshop.