Whether it's a 6-line email or 50-page report, if it's poorly written, your reader will struggle. The communication will take longer to read because your reader frequently has to read a sentence several times before they understand it. The ideas may be so jumbled the reader may be left wondering what the point is. Or the terminology may unfamiliar to them.
Reading poor writing is simply hard work. The reader quickly becomes confused and frustrated. It might make their brain hurt. In contrast, reading a good piece of writing feels like a smooth ride. The words carry the reader along a logical progression of ideas. The reader understands everything on first reading. They feel in control and informed.
When you write emails or reports at work, you may find it difficult to identify where your communication has become derailed. For employees as well as their managers, it’s essential to be able to identify the five basic building blocks of a good email or report.
- The communication follows a logical structure. A ‘brain dump’ where ideas appear on the page at random makes an email or report very difficult for the reader to navigate. A good report or email will tell you up front why you are writing or what the communication is about. The content will follow a logical sequence and recommendations or requests will be easy to find.
- Paragraphs are well-structured. Pages of unbroken text quickly deter readers. A good report will have paragraphs of around 5 lines or fewer. Paragraphs will focus on one topic, or aspect of a topic, and begin with a clear topic sentence or linking sentence. For emails, shorter paragraphs (one or two lines) are recommended.
- Sentences are a manageable length. Sentences over 30 words are difficult to read, even if well structured. An easy-to-read email or report will have an average sentence length of between 15 and 20 words.
- The text is concise. Padding out reports to make them longer to appear more important is a common trap. Rather than impressing the reader, all those unnecessary words simply become distracting ‘noise’ to the reader and will obscure your key points. A good email or report will use concise alternatives to wordy phrases and will be free from 'fluffy' statements that have no real meaning.
- Sentences are punctuated correctly. Full stops and commas are necessary to create pauses for the reader. Generally, a full stop is used to indicate the end of an idea. Using a comma (short pause) when a full stop is needed (long pause) makes sentences unnecessarily long. A good report or email will be correctly punctuated following the rules of English grammar.
There are many other elements that contribute to good writing, such as adopting an appropriate tone, using informative headings and following parallel structure in lists. But without these five basic building blocks, any report or email will be difficult to read.
A poor email or report will probably take less effort for you to write. It’s tempting when you’re faced with a deadline, or you’re overwhelmed by a multitude of tasks, to simply bash out the words without considering the needs of the reader. Not taking care writing your report or email could have consequences down the line. Your email or report may be ignored, resulting in no action. It may be misunderstood and result in the wrong action being taken. Or your manager has to waste time rewriting your report.