How to write like a person

Writing a good report is an under-appreciated art. You don’t want to be dry and overly technical, but you don’t want to sound like Sally Struthers asking for donations, either. You want to present your work in a way that makes your impact clear and also makes everyone want to keep reading. It requires a careful balance, but here are a few tricks that may help.

1) Don’t ever use the word individual. It’s not an individual, it’s a person. More than one person is people (not individuals).

Compare “Individuals who visited the clinic reported greater satisfaction with quality of care,” to “People who visited the clinic…” People get your attention. Individuals are meaningless.

2) Keep your paragraphs short. Reports are so often big blocks of text that short paragraphs are refreshing to look at. It subtly makes your materials seem easier to read, which makes people more likely to read them. By the same logic, use bulleted lists whenever you can.

3) Use acronyms sparingly. Some acronyms are so common that they will read like words to most people; those are okay. Acronyms that are specific to your project or organization, however, will drive readers away. Avoid them. If you use a special kind of pit toilet designed by your own engineers, do not call it the Improved Insect-Negating Ground Facility (IIGF) and then go on to refer to the IIGF throughout your document. Just call it the new toilet design.

4) Change up your sentence length. Let some sentences be long; go ahead and use subordinate clauses. Others should be short. Varying the rhythm will keep people engaged.

5) Be careful with adjectives. Calling something terrible doesn’t really make your point. Describing the terrible conditions does. Saying a school is in “a condition of despair” (yes, that’s a quote from a report I read) is much less effective than saying that the school has leaky plumbing, no roof, and a rat infestation.

6) When you’ve finished your last draft, read it out loud as a final check. Any awkward phrasings will leap out at you in full awful glory. (Thanks to Ryan Briggs for this tip.)

(photo credit: genewolf)