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Effective writing

To ensure your document is effective, here are three important things to consider

2007 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Photo: Mike Webb/Tearfund

From: Effective communication – Footsteps 71

Different ways of sharing information

When we document information, whether it is for a report, case study, newsletter or poster, it is very easy just to write down everything we know about the subject. This can be very boring for the readers! It may also mean that they do not read past the first paragraph. If they do decide to read on, they may waste a lot of time reading text that is not relevant to them before they get to the part which is really useful.

To ensure your document is effective, there are three important things to consider:

1 Purpose
Consider the reason why you are writing, not just what you are writing about. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I want to achieve? What change am I looking for?
  • What do I want the reader to think, learn or do?

An effective document promotes action. If you can think of the action you want your readers to take, you will be better able to provide the ideas and information to help them to take it. Adding discussion questions at the end of an article will help the reader to think about how to apply the information to their own situation.

2 Audience
Writing is effective if the reader finds what you write to be useful. It is not just the content you need to think about, but whether the style and language used is appropriate to your readers. Consider these questions:

  • Who is your audience? Who are the main people you want to communicate with?
  • What are their roles and responsibilities?
  • What or how much do they already know?
  • What do they want to hear? What do they need to hear?
  • How does the audience best understand information and ideas? Would a discussion, practical demonstration, radio programme or a role-play be more appropriate than writing?

Pretend you are speaking to your main audience as you write, this will help you to write in an appropriate way. Some audiences will understand difficult or technical words, others will not. Make sure the language is appropriate. Choose short, simple words where possible. If it is necessary to use long words, such as technical terms, that your audience is unlikely to understand, then explain what they mean. Make average sentence length around 15–20 words.

3 Key Message
A message is a piece of information targeted at a specific group of people. Summarise your main message in 15–20 words. It is the single most important point you want to make.

Think about how you can share the information most effectively. How will you encourage people to take practical action?

Tips for writing a document

Before you start, write an outline of what you want to say. The outline will help give the document structure, act as a guide as you write the first draft and help the document to flow. Write a sentence that contains the main message and then make a list of the key points you want to make, in order.

You may want to show the outline to colleagues or a representative of your main audience to help you to improve the usefulness of the document before you write the first draft.

The title of the document should define the content in as few words as possible. An effective title attracts the attention of the reader. Use the title to deliver the key message, indicate the content of the document, or be a challenging question. The golden rule is to keep it short: express just one idea or subject in the title.

The introduction is one of the most important parts of the document. It is the next thing the reader will read after reading the headings. If the introduction doesn’t attract the reader, they are unlikely to read on. The introduction can:

  • Help the reader to put the document into context (this might include some background information).
  • Explain the problem you are addressing.
  • Mention the question you are seeking to answer.
  • If you are writing a case study about a project, you could briefly explain why the project came about, what the project involved and what the impact was.

The introduction is sometimes easier to write once you have written the main part of the document. Make sure the introduction is kept short. By writing your key message in the introduction, you can make sure that the reader learns something even if they decide not to continue reading.


Photo: Jo Hill, Tearfund

Photo: Jo Hill, Tearfund

Ask others to help you review your writing. Photo: Tearfund

Ask others to help you review your writing. Photo: Tearfund

When you have written a draft, pause for a break and then go back and edit it. Editing usually means taking away words that you don’t need and correcting any mistakes. It should ensure that the document:

  • is easier to read
  • makes better sense
  • does not miss out anything important
  • does not include anything irrelevant.

It can be helpful to ask someone else to review it for you.

Use headings carefully. Use them to shape the structure of the document rather than to make the page look better.

Tables, diagrams and images help you to explain your point. They also make the page look less boring. Keep graphics simple and place them on the page where you refer to them.

  • Bullet points are useful for presenting a list, but use them sparingly.

Highlighting is useful for emphasising words or ideas. Bold and italics are better than underlines or CAPITALS.

Make sure that the author of the document is mentioned. Credit any photos or illustrations used.

This article was compiled by Maggie Sandilands and Rachel Blackman using information adapted from Writing for Change by Alan Barker and Firoze Manji. This excellent resource is produced by Fahamu in English, French and Spanish, and is available to order on CD Rom or read and download from their website:

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