Many years ago – last century in fact – when I was in Grade 5 (told you it was a long time ago!), I went off to a week long Writers Camp. There were about six kids from my school, and similar from other schools around the region. We spent a week writing stories, and learning about the craft (there was also a disco on the last night, and I remember bopping away to such greats as Footloose and Flashdance). Okay I digress. I can remember part way through the week one of the facilitators pulling me aside to have a chat about my opening lines. From memory, mine were along the lines of ‘Once upon a time…’ or similar. The teacher took me over to a table of what must have been 11 year old geniuses and got them all to read out their opening lines. They all seemed amazing. My memory is that they were all very evocative and took you right to a moment that you wanted to engage with as a reader. I remember being very impressed, feeling a bit hopeless about my own efforts, but filled with a resolve to always craft clever opening lines.
I spent a lot of my professional career with that in mind, agonising over the opening lines of my budget reports, annual report overviews, board papers, technical accounting standard interpretations, policy statements, business plans and so on. The thing is, that agonising took time, and who has spare time? Did my (self assessed!) Pulitzer Prize winning opening lines always mean that the whole document ended up being quality? Hmmm….
Somewhere along the way I actually learned a different lesson: Don’t agonise over opening lines. Not everyone is naturally a good writer. As a generalisation, writing might not be in the comfort zone for a lot of accountants. We often prefer numbers, with words being limited to bullet point commentary. Writing is still an important part of communication though – have a look at my recent Telling Tales blog on this point. Writing reports, policies and papers is a pretty common part of work life for a lot of us. If you can’t come up with a snappy opening line or Executive Summary, don’t waste time fretting. Move onto a part that does come easily. Maybe it’s explaining why the budget versus actual figures vary, maybe it’s explaining your interpretation of an accounting standard, maybe it’s talking about the disco songs that you used to dance to as a kid (if you can weave that into your topic!). Once you get some writing under your belt, and get in the flow of things, it will be easier to move onto parts that are trickier. Don’t be afraid to just write something down and come back to it later when you might have some better words in your head.
Another thing that you might consider doing is writing a first draft, then getting a trusted colleague to review for you. It might be your Supervisor, and possibly your writing could be part of a structured professional development opportunity. You could also try approaching a colleague known for their writing skills to give something a once over for you. Maybe you could help them out with something in exchange? Perhaps you could review their budget, or help them set up a spreadsheet?
You can also do short courses on Business Writing, and there are some good resources to help. I have a handy book called ‘Business Writing’ by Baden Eunson (Wiley 2007). I have found I can dip into this when I have various types of documents to write. It doesn’t have opening lines… but it does have a lot of practical advice about structure and form which I have found very useful in my writing.
What about you? What are your tips for getting business reports written? Does it help or hinder if you have songs from the 80s playing in the background?!