Years ago, I worked on the development of high-performance concrete for an offshore oil platform in Alaska. We needed to conduct abrasion testing at below-freezing temperatures, so we wanted to put the test apparatus in a cold room. One day my boss received a long letter from the lab manager explaining why that wasn’t going to work. The letter described a series of dire but implausible scenarios involving frostbite and death by hypothermia. On page 3, he mentioned in passing that the testing equipment was too large to fit through the door of the cold room. The letter went on for another page or so after that. My boss was both frustrated and amused. “All he had to say was, ‘Dear Bill, The damned thing won’t fit through the door. Love, Bill'” Instead, we had to slog through four pages of hand-wringing. Why didn’t he just get to the point?
In teaching students how to write engineering reports for clients, I see this all the time. It’s most obvious in the executive summary, which should contain everything the executive needs to take action with confidence that it’s the best thing to do. To fit all that into a page or two, you have to get to the point. So don’t blather on about the company’s history and noble purposes or the benefits to humanity of your work. Readers don’t have time for that.
Burying the lede
When I’m reading the students’ draft reports, I often get as far as the ethical factors analysis before finding the real justification for the work. That is, the economic, environmental, global, social, and cultural implications of the project are often the key. This should come as no surprise, as engineering is all about the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Thinking critically about these aspects of the project often brings out some important ideas.
What I still find surprising, though, is how often the students bury the lede so far into the report. If they’ve developed a way to reduce the number of defective products by half, say, why not put that in the executive summary? Or if 25% of all Americans will eventually develop the condition their medical device treats, why not start with that?
What is the point?
Part of the problem is that writers don’t always know what’s important—or what matters to their readers. So they hedge their bets by writing about everything. At least that way they’ve got it in there somewhere.
The longer I teach technical writing the more I realize it’s not so much about spelling, grammar, and syntax as it is about the relationship between writer and reader. If you’re going to focus on what’s important, you need to know your reader. That is, why does (or should) your topic matter to them? How will they use your report? What do they need from it?
Naturally, you also need to know your topic. Gather enough specific information that you have something substantive to work with. Quantify as much as you can. As you sort through it, you’ll probably find something that really matters. That’s what you lead with, and that’s how you sum it up at the end.
For example, if you’re writing an executive summary, your reader is a high-level business executive. So concentrate on the things that matter to their business, whether that’s the size of the potential market or the cost savings that result from changing their manufacturing process. Put the arguments in terms of dollars or things that are easy to convert into dollars, such as kWh of energy savings. That’s the language they understand best: the bottom line.
Organizing the material
Another problem, though, is that many of us were taught to organize our writing by putting the most compelling point at the end. It’s similar to the way we tell a joke—the story leads up to the punchline at the end. But most readers don’t have time to slog though pages of prose, so get to the point.
Two ways of organizing your material can help you put the most compelling information up front. The first is order of importance, in which you start with the most important point and follow with the rest in order of decreasing importance. This method works well for relatively short items such as conclusions and recommendations. You can cover each one in a bullet point or short paragraph.
When you need to provide more technical details and evidence, such as in an expert report to an attorney, the psychological approach works better. That is, you start with your findings—or put them just after your introduction if you need to set the context first. Then provide the supporting evidence and analysis. That way you can go into as much detail as you—and your client—need.
Similarly, the topic sentence—that is, the sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about—should be the first or second one. Don’t make the reader slog through the whole paragraph to find out what it’s about.
Get to the point—then stop
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lastly, once you’ve made your most compelling points, stop. Four or five significant conclusions are more meaningful than 10 that are less so. Also, you weaken your argument if you keep going after you’ve made your case. The same goes for recommendations: provide the few that will give the most “bang for the buck” and then stop. Don’t waste the reader’s time with incremental improvements. If you give in to the temptation to provide every last point, you’ll leave your reader wondering whether you know what matters most.