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How to Structure a Message or Document

Lately when I ask participants in my business writing courses for their reasons for attending, many of them tell me they struggle with structuring their writing. Whether it is an email, a letter, a report, a proposal, or another business document, they can’t figure out where to begin and what comes next.

Do you experience the same challenge?

Many writing teachers recommend working from an outline. But my approach is different. Perhaps it will work for you.

I start by thinking about my readers: Who are they? What do I want them to do? What do I want them to think or feel?

Then I imagine the questions they would ask if we were sitting down face to face for a meeting. For example, if I brought my team members together to tell them we needed to move up our deadline for a major project, these might be their questions:

  • What is this meeting about?
  • Why do we need to move up the deadline?
  • Who agreed to this?
  • Is it certain? That is, is it a done deal?
  • How can we possibly accomplish this?
  • Will we have additional resources to get the job done? What are they?
  • What about our vacations that we have already scheduled? Can we take them?
  • How will we be rewarded for working our tails off?
  • This deadline isn’t going to change again, is it?
  • What exactly do we need to do to get the job done?
  • Where can I get more information when I need it?

The scenario I have described would be better handled as an in-person meeting or a videoconference than as a written message, because of the potential negative reactions to the information. However, I chose it to illustrate thinking through what the audience would ask and in what order. You might write such a message to recap the information shared at the meeting.

After you list the potential questions of your readers, you simply answer them in the order you believe your readers would want the information.

In some cases, you can even include the questions–at least some of them–in your document or message.

If you use the approach of answering the reader’s questions (rather than outlining), you will write about what your reader wants and needs to know. It will be easier for you to leave out topics that don’t interest your reader, even when they are fascinating to you. Those topics might include background, technical details, and stories your reader doesn’t really care about.

If you want to learn more about structuring your writing, being more concise, sounding professional, and other important aspects of business writing, take my online self-study course Business Writing Tune-Up. The course includes getting specific written feedback from me on your writing.

How do you structure your documents? Please share your strategies.

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Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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