It is not enough to be right. You must also convince others of the correctness of your thinking. A capable manager might find an idea passed over simply because it was not communicated in the best manner possible. In a world where time is the most precious of commodities and you may have someone’s attention for just one moment, brevity becomes critical. The ability to be clear, complete and concise is, therefore, vital to effective management.
While true for all communication, the need to be clear, complete and concise is perhaps most important for written communication and for analytic writing in particular — writing that conveys a specific conclusion or recommendation arrived at from critical analysis. The approach outlined in this note emphasizes objectivity, clarity and efficiency. The guiding principle is to write to the needs and expectations of the reader.
These seven deadly sins are not presented in order of importance (no such order exists); they are not exclusive (one can easily err in multiple ways); and they are intended to be humorous (though this is no laughing matter):
- Extravagance: Too many words Keep it simple, clear and direct. Dense writing will lose your reader. This applies as much to individual sentences as to the whole document.
- Gluttony: Too much information Focus on your judgment and understanding, not the facts or background. This will also let the reader know that you can identify what is really important. In fact, selective and focused documents convey by their very structure that your judgment is sound. More than anything else, this makes your document a better tool for the reader.
- Sloth: Making the reader do your job The reader should not struggle to understand what you have done or why.1 Take the time to write clearly. Make your exhibits professional and easily understood.
- Confusion: Lack of clarity or purpose Avoid undifferentiated volumes of text, lists of facts without context, or indecipherable exhibits. The document must have text that organizes and arranges the information. Facts do not speak for themselves. Lists are just lists. Well-articulated sentences and well-organized paragraphs provide perspective and an organizing framework.2
- Anger: Vague or emotional language While possibly effective in other contexts in analytic writing, readers generally favor statements of fact over emotive value judgments without support. “Earnings were terrible” says very little of substance, whereas “earnings were lower than those of five companies in the same industry” says much more.
- Pride: Style over function Do not call more attention to yourself and your writing than to the content you are presenting. Complex sentences, fancy diagrams and elaborate spreadsheets can detract from the core message. Style is a tool, not an objective.
- Arrogance: Disregarding instructions Whether you have good reasons to deviate from what is requested or you just overlook minor details such as formatting instructions, failing to deliver what your reader expects demonstrates a degree of disregard toward the reader. Know what is expected and either deliver it or adjust the reader’s expectations before you begin.
Clearly, avoiding the seven deadly sins of analytic writing requires some degree of judgment given that these rules often seem to be in opposition. For example, you do not want to make your reader work to understand what you have said (sloth), but at the same time, you don’t want to waste the reader’s time with overly detailed descriptions (pride). You want to use style and structure to make the document a good tool, but you do not want to overdo it. In the end, though, always strive to be concise. Achieve the most with the least.
The preceding is excerpted from Darden Professor Marc L. Lipson’s technical note Clear, Complete and Concise: Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of Analytic Writing (Darden Business Publishing).
For three simple principles of analytic writing that are straightforward yet often overlooked, please see this article’s companion piece, "Beyond the Alphabet: The ABCs of Analytic Writing."
- 1. On a more literal level, the reader should not have to squint to read your document — at a minimum, every single letter or number should be at least 10 points in size. A common error is to just shrink a whole spreadsheet down until it fits, rather than taking the time to format it so all the numbers are large enough.
- 2. Particularly egregious exposition errors include large paragraphs, paragraphs without clearly focused purpose, overly complex sentences, no organization via section headings or formatting choices, and the aforementioned lists of facts without context. Particularly egregious errors on exhibits include unexplained important calculations (providing cell formulas is futile and irresponsible — they don’t mean anything in a printout), continuing a table onto another page without including column headings or line labels, and exhibits without labels or explanations.