My Saturday Sessions –The Writing Skills

This post is in continuation to my earlier post on Creative and Analytical Thinking. As asked by many,  I am discussing in this post how to build the writing skills.

For a consulting company like ours, good writing skills are extremely important. These skills are rather rare to see, especially in students and young professionals. And I also encounter seniors who continue with poor writing often not realizing that they lack the writing skills. Most do “cut and paste” from Google fetched resources and when you do a check for plagiarism, you are horrified to see the results. Many are not accustomed to original writing. I see a resistance and that is rather alarming. Finally, most clients don’t read the reports and cannot distinguish between “good” and “bad” writing. All they are interested is the Environmental Clearance.

Some argue that good writing is an in-born skill, some say it reflects personality trait and some believe that writing gets molded at the school level. The writing skills can be however improved by getting a mentor, by reading good examples of writing and doing practice.

Creative and analytical thinking is often a precursor to good writing.  Good writing does not mean you use ornamented, sophisticated or high-level English! Writing in simple words can often be very effective. For this you need to understand “why are you writing?” and “for whom?”

I ask my students to start with an exercise of writing half a page profile for publishing in the Alumni magazine of the institute they studied. This exercise is a bit tricky. A group discussion on the introductions written by everybody reveals a lot as this profile needs to be more personal (without much bragging) and less technical while brief.

After spending some 20 minutes on this exercise, I ask the students to write their bio-sketch for the following scenario

You are to be included in Team that is bidding for a project concerning

  • Environmental Impact Assessment
  • Environmental and Social Due Diligence
  • Circular Economy
  • Climate Change

You are asked to write a one-page profile that will be included in the technical proposal.

Clearly the profile needs to be more technical and less personal. The profile does not follow a template like date of birth, qualifications, certifications, year-wise or company-wise experience, memberships and language skills etc. That’s the challenge, requiring right sequencing and highlighting as relevant to the project. Students then understand how to write “customized” projection of themselves. I show them examples of some well-done bio-sketches.

Having gone through these two “warm-up” exercises, we move to two more writing exercises. These exercises are essentially to learn writing emails for communication. Today, writing emails is an important activity and extremely critical in the business.

I give following two exercises and ask the students to write and send me the emails

Draft an email to decline a job offer at Environmental Management Centre LLP (chose one scenario)

  • Scenario A: The applicant holds a Ph D in environmental economics from International Institute of Environment, Energy and Economics from Lund University, Sweden with 5 years of research experience at International Institute of Applied Systems Analyses in Vienna
  • Scenario B: The applicant has MSc in Zoology from Mumbai University with one-year work at an NGO involved in cleaning river Mithi.

In preparing the response, the students need to understand what we do in my company, be positive and helpful and build a relationship.

The second exercise is to draft an email to  client requesting an extension of the project (chose one scenario)

  • Scenario A– The ToRs (Terms of Reference) that you signed were ambiguous
  • Scenario B – Your Client took much more time to review the interim draft reports
  • Scenario C – One of your Team members resigned abruptly who played critical coordinating role
  • Scenario D – There were significant delays in acquiring data that was promised

Writing these emails for these scenarios is not easy. I find that students either take a considerable time or generally show poor writing. I give 20 minutes for both the exercises and later show samples of mature responses. The student understands the importance of experience and learn where to be explicit and where implicit and how – protecting the interest of the company.

We take a lunch break now and begin with more serious exercises in writing.

The first task is to write a two-page technical proposal on a topic to a funding agency to secure Rs 1 million grant.

Understanding about the funding organization, learning about its current and past sponsored projects is important. Reading the annual reports that may be available on the web gives even more insight. Focused research forms an important step in good writing. I expect the students to do such research using Google and access this information and decide the topic for funding. That is often not easy. In addition, student needs to know about the proposal format and justify the rationale of asking Rs. 1 million.

The students are given option of choosing one of following three funding organizations. You would notice that each organization has a different flavor.

In 1 hour, students are expected to complete writing a two-page proposal. I put their proposals in a P2P (Peer to Peer) format and students discuss each other’s proposal and co-learn. My job is then to summarize this writing experience with some tips.

In preparing policy notes, the students must have ability to listen, observe and research to answer complex questions that we often address in our work on strategic consulting. I screen the following four videos and give students the tasks. A student picks up any one of the four options.

  • Listen to the Video on the Bhopal Tragedy
  • Write two-page policy note on how the Bhopal story does not repeat again
  • Listen to the Video where Anand Mahindra is interviewed
  • Write two-page strategy note on how the Government and Business work can together towards combating climate change
  • Listen to the Video on India’s water crisis
  • Write two-page policy and strategy note on how can the Jal Shakti Abhiyan address this challenge
  • Listen to the new products from J P Morgan on conservation finance

 

  • Write two-page policy and strategy note on whether India needs Conservation Finance? and if yes then how to roll out this idea?

This exercise requires more time and I allot 2 hours. After the two hours of work, I ask students to volunteer to narrate their approach to writing the policy and strategy note and share their writing experience.

It is now the time to cover tips on report writing. I am listing some of the tips below. I talk about these tips giving illustrations.

Planning

  • First understand who is the audience?
  • Who are the likely reviewers?
  • How many pages/words is the expectation?
  • What is time limit for the first draft?
  • What is the target date for final report for submission?

Getting into Details

  • What is the intended outcome of the report?
  • Scope and Objectives as per your contract/understanding – Ensure that these are well addressed in the report
  • Make a Top-level ToC (Table of Content) as the First Step – Get it approved
  • Now move to a two-level ToC as the Second Step – provide here estimate of pages – Get it approved
  • Allocate if you have a team and set Targets

Structuring the Writing

  • Number the Paragraphs
  • Write a summary statement for each paragraph – Helps to map with second level ToC and for later building an executive summary
  • Identify sections that will be built on secondary data
  • Identify sections that will be built on primary data
  • Decide on what goes in the appendices? (Sometimes it’s good to include the Terms of References on which the report is built. This avoids unnecessary expectations from the reader/reviewer)

Carry out a two-stage internal review as you write the report

  • Read page by page as completed to check the ambiguity, redundancy / repetitions and for better construct of the sentences. Page by page review as your write greatly helps in improving your expression and presentation.
  • On completion of the full report, do second review to assess mapping with the ToC, whether you are able to message the intended outcomes. It’s useful to ask a colleague to do an independent review.
  • Now build the Executive and/or Non-Technical Summary
  • List for yourself the lessons you learnt in preparing this report

Text, Tables, Boxes, Figures, Infographics etc.

  • Plan the positioning of Tables, Boxes, Figures and Infographics.
  • Maintain consistency in Colours and Style for all the visuals ensuring quality in B&W printing.
  • Follow standard referencing style (e.g. footnotes/endnotes), avoid any media references). Use most recent and relevant references.
  • Referencing Tables, Boxes and Figures must be done in the text. Statement of key observations must be associated with all Tables, Boxes and Figures.

Typography and Misc.

  • Title and end page
  • Margins
  • Footers/headers
  • Font, paragraph spacing (1.5 for drafts 1.15 for final)
  • When to use Bold, Italics and Underlined?
  • Spell check, Grammar check

Sensitive issues

  • Plagiarism
  • Acknowledgement
  • Disclaimer

The guidelines above are not perfect solutions for good report writing. You may certainly add to my list and expand. These tips are based on my own writing experience and I am continuously learning!

Hope you find this narration useful. Reach me should you need any additional inputs or guidance. I will be most happy to help.


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Cover image sourced from https://www.ethos3.com/2016/10/writing-skills-the-presenters-competitive-advantage/

7 comments

  1. Very well articulated Sir. As a start-up we also grapple with thie good writing skills in our team. Will be a good read for my team too.

  2. Dr Modak,

    This one too is amazing as always. I like the step by step learning. The exercises in first session pre lunch – seemingly simplistic through self reflection can reveal WHAT we communicate (our level of understanding) and HOW we do (our message to the other). If taken seriously, it can help the “student” develop a unique writing style of his/hers.
    The diverse topics of video watch you have selected and the Tasks assigned would make the “student’s” mind ticking for every similar video watched at a later date.

    So, the Session does not really end !!!

    Thankyou Sir, being a learner for life, am very much enjoying your Saturday Sessions Blog!

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