The (sub)genre of the executive summary. [Version 2.0]

[updated from the original post on March 16, 2016]

When a business professional needs to influence other people to do something not obviously beneficial to them, the individual often writes a persuasive document. That’s why we have proposals, business plans, recommendation reports, white papers, etc. Because such documents present complex information, they are usually lengthy. But readers are busy! So writers need to provide their audience with a way to decide if the entire document is worth reading. That’s why writers create introductions, abstracts, or executive summaries.

This post provides the basics for writing an executive summary. Sad to say I had to rely almost exclusively on prescriptive sources as there just isn’t any descriptive research on this (sub)genre of business reports (see below). I will note, however, that Lagerwerf and Bossers confirmed that decision makers were more likely to read the executive summary in business proposals than any other section of the document.

Creating an Executive Summary

I advocate following five steps to create an executive summary.

1. Clarify your bottom line

If you’re not clear about what your reader should do after reading your report, you can bet your reader won’t be either. The one idea you want your reader to get (or the one thing you want them to do) is the bottom line message.

Yeung’s research into business reports concluded that recommendations are critical. They represent solutions to existing business problems. They support decision-making. Often, the bottom line of your report is a recommendation.

Some folks talk about the bottom line as the “big ask.” Business writing consultants at Good Copy, Bad Copy provide some good examples:

  • Adopt my proposed compensation scheme across the firm
  • Agree to my suggested strategy for the operations team
  • Provide the budget for the comms plan I’m presenting in the report

So before you begin writing, clearly state your bottom line. I like to write it on a post-it and attach it to my computer monitor so I can constantly remind myself what it is. It’s easy to get off track. The post-it is my guidepost as I make choices about content, organization, etc. while I write.

2. Analyze your readers

See the system I recommend. In short, you must think as objectively as possible about  (1) your relationship with the audience and (2) the audience’s readiness–both ability and willingness–to accept your bottom line message.

3. Develop your content

This Inc. magazine piece offers a good explanation of the required content for an executive summary, as well as more and less effective examples. Here’s a further simplified approach.

  • Describe a problem, need or goal. The key is to describe something your reader is ready to hear with no additional explanation needed.
  • Describe the desired outcome. Again, the key is to BRIEFLY assure the readers you understand their wants and needs.
  • Describe your proposed solution. This is your bottom line: what should your reader know or do to get the desired outcome?
  • Support your proposed solution. You want to give your reader a limited number of specific highlights from the report. Choose those that directly support your bottom line. And choose only those that require little, if any, detailed explanation.

Let’s consider how content from two sample executive summaries matches up. Both were written for clients by a team of consultants demonstrating the value of data analytics for the clients’ organization.

Executive Summary for Report A Executive Summary for Report B
Describing the problem, need, or goal of the reader In the United States, Louisiana ranks highest in automobile insurance rates—this is due in part to insurance fraud. Some but not all fraud is detected. Previous direct mail campaigns to reach new customers at Magazine Z resulted in an estimated annual net loss of $7K.
Describing the reader’s desired outcome A technique for better detecting fraudulent claims would deter them and lower insurance rates. A strategy for better predicting new customer response would improve return on investment.
Stating the bottom line (proposed solution) To identify those with the highest odds of being fraudsters, drivers were ranked by modeling (1) the number of crashes, (2) the total number of not-at-fault crashes, and (3) the total number of rear-end, not-at-fault crashes. To determine the probability of positive customer response, three campaign strategies were developed based on modeling the characteristics of the different sources of new customers.
Supporting the bottom line with specific highlights from the report We developed our model using crash data from 1999 to 2012 from the Highway Safety Research Group. We analyzed crash characteristics of drivers involved in two-vehicle, rear-end crashes…

The model successfully detected one convicted fraudster with 69 crashes who is currently awaiting sentencing…

Each strategy involves modeling customer age and campaign month. The distribution of age showed three distinct groups. In addition, each campaign month varied wildly in success…

Using one of our model-based strategies (for hunting and fishing licenses as a source of new customers) should result in an estimated positive return of $25K annually…

In both executive summaries, the consultants began by describing an existing problem and desired outcome of interest to the client in language an executive can quickly grasp: better fraud detection in Report A and better prediction of customer response in Report B. Getting this information up front is how the consultants demonstrated they listened to their clients.

Describing a problem is critical for all executive summaries because it makes explicit the connection between the detailed information in the report and the reader’s needs. Note that a 2016 report from MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS used the graphic below to demonstrate that data analytics rarely results in insights actually used to guide decision-making in organizations. I’m betting that, if analysts paid more attention to the organization’s problem/desired outcome, more of their insights would be applied.

Lack of Insight

Back to the report content in the table above… Because the bottom line for readers in both reports is similar (e.g., clients will recognize the value of data analytics for addressing their existing problems), both executive summaries focus on models created through data analysis: identifying fraudsters in Report A and predicting customer conversion in Report B.

In the remainder of both executive summaries, consultants supported their bottom line with selected details. Both provided some high-level content about their models in executive friendly language. They wisely omitted any detailed modeling information. That detail appeared within the body of the report. An executive reader could assign an in-house expert to review it but didn’t have to slog through it him/herself!

Consultants in both cases also highlighted a “sexy” finding in the executive summary: identification of an extreme and convicted fraudster in Report A and a dollar amount– estimated but positive–for the client’s ROI in Report B.

4. Organize and format your content for maximum reading efficiency

If the bottom line is complex, you must carefully implement effective organization and formatting techniques in your executive summary. Good Copy, Bad Copy consultants recommend:

  • Creating sub-headings is useful if your bottom line has multiple parts.
  • Using bullet points helps readers scan a list of short content items.
  • Limiting yourself to one page is more likely to achieve reader commitment.

I would add: Supporting important points with visual displays whenever possible. Compared to words alone, the image below is far more efficient in making Florence Nightingale’s point that most soldiers in the Crimean War died of preventable diseases (displayed in gray). data viz Nightingale-mortality

5. Edit carefully

Your content should be front and center. But it won’t be if your writing style or mechanics are not what your audience expects. If your style is too formal (or informal) or your subjects and verbs don’t agree in number, readers may focus on your writing instead of your content. Because not all readers have the same expectations, it’s easier to edit for readers you know well. For instance, while most readers don’t notice passive voice at all, a few are downright offended by it. If you know your readers well, edit your word choices with them in mind.

At a minimum, make sure you, or a qualified colleague, remove all non-standard spelling/typos and inconsistencies in your document. They reduce your authority. And that’s not going to help you persuade your readers to do anything not obviously beneficial to them.

Evaluating a Complete Executive Summary

Let’s look at a complete executive summary. I’ve chosen one somewhat randomly titled “Economic Impacts of the Louisiana Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit” prepared in 2015.

  • Writer: consultants at HR&A Advisors, Inc. in New York, NY
  • Readers: clients who commissioned the report were Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association (LFEA) and Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA)
  • Bottom line message: the Credit has had a positive economic and unclear fiscal impact on the state

As background, I should note the report is 69 pages long with five major sections:

  1. Introduction (pp. 7-11)
  2. The Louisiana Motion Picture and Television Industry (pp. 13-25)
  3. Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism in Louisiana (pp. 26-32)
  4. Economic Impact Analysis (pp. 33-41)
  5. Fiscal Impacts of Production Spending and Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism (pp. 42-43)

It also includes a technical (pp. 44-50) and a general (pp. 51-68) appendix, as well as disclaimers (p. 69). (If you’re interested, access the complete report.)

Clearly, the report’s length made an executive summary a requirement. As you can see below, the executive summary itself occupies roughly 1 and 1/3 pages (664 words).

If the writers had shared their draft with me before sending it to the intended readers (the clients who commissioned the report), I would offer the following observations.

My first point is that the content of most interest to readers is not at the beginning. Instead, it appears under the heading, “Summary of Findings.”  The heading is definitely helpful in pointing readers to what they want.  However, why place two full paragraphs of detail before the information of most interest to readers? To make matters worse, the first paragraph provides no information that would be new to the intended readers. Instead, it seems to be directed at a different audience. That’s a signal it doesn’t belong first in the executive summary.

The second paragraph may provide information that would be useful to some intended readers. But its primary value is as a means of organizing the bottom line about findings.

That brings me to my second point: the content of most interest is not organized for efficient comprehension.  You may object by noting the writers used bullet points. In this case, however, those bullets signify nothing more than a little white space at the beginning of a paragraph would. Readers have to read every word of every bullet in order to get the meaning.

Consider how much more impact the bottom line would have if it looked something like what I created below in a revised version of the original executive summary, which is half the length of the original (329 words).

In the revised version, I organized the bottom line findings to make them easier to scan. The second and third paragraphs now begin with the bottom line of the content that follows. (Think topic sentences.) Plus, I highlighted specific findings in a table with bullets and parallel content/form.

Note I also created some content at the beginning as my guidance above recommends. The document now describes a problem (i.e., impact of the Credit is undocumented) and a desired outcome (i.e., measurements of impact will determine the Credit’s value). I hope my readers agree that the revised version is more executive friendly.

As always, your comments are welcomed.

Research Sources

Here are some sources that support my guidance on writing executive summaries.

Clayton, J. (2003). Writing an executive summary that means business.Harvard Management Communication Letter, 6, 3-4.

Lagerwerf, L. and Bossers, E. (2002). Assessing business proposals: Genre conventions and audience response in document design. Journal of Business Communication, 39, 437-460.

Reave, L. (2002). Promoting innovation in the workplace: The internal proposal. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 8-21.

Roach, J., Tracy, D., & Durden, K. (2007). Integrating business core knowledge through upper division report composition. Business Communication Quarterly, 70, 431-449.

Van Nus, M. (1999). Business genres and their corporate context. Document Design, 1, 187-197.

Yeung, L. (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26, 156-179.

The (sub)genre of the executive summary

When a business professional needs to influence other people to do something not obviously beneficial to them, the individual often writes a persuasive document. That’s why we have proposals, business plans, recommendation reports, white papers, etc. Because such documents present complex information, they are usually lengthy. But readers are busy! So writers need to provide their audience with a way to decide if the entire document is worth reading. That’s why writers create introductions, abstracts, or executive summaries.

This post provides the basics for writing an executive summary. Sad to say I had to rely almost exclusively on prescriptive sources as there just isn’t any descriptive research on this (sub)genre of business reports (see below). I will note, however, that Lagerwerf and Bossers confirmed that decision makers were more likely to read the executive summary in business proposals than any other section of the document.

Creating an Executive Summary

I advocate following four steps to create an executive summary.

1. Clarify your bottom line

If you’re not clear about what your reader should do after reading your report, you can bet your reader won’t be either. The one idea you want your reader to get (or the one thing you want them to do) is the bottom line message.

Yeung’s research into business reports concluded that recommendations are critical. They represent solutions to existing business problems. They support decision-making. Often, the bottom line of your report is a recommendation.

Some folks talk about the bottom line as the “big ask.” Business writing consultants at Good Copy, Bad Copy provide some good examples:

  • Adopt my proposed compensation scheme across the firm
  • Agree to my suggested strategy for the operations team
  • Provide the budget for the comms plan I’m presenting in the report

So before you begin writing, clearly state your bottom line. I like to write it on a post-it and attach it to my computer monitor so I can constantly remind myself what it is. It’s easy to get off track. The post-it is my guidepost as I make choices about content, organization, etc. while I write.

2. Analyze your readers

See the system I recommend. In short, you must think as objectively as possible about  (1) your relationship with the audience and (2) the audience’s readiness–both ability and willingness–to accept your bottom line message.

3. Develop your content

This Inc. magazine piece offers a good explanation of the required content for an executive summary, as well as more and less effective examples. Here’s a further simplified approach.

  • Describe a problem, need or goal. The key is to describe something your reader is ready to hear with no additional explanation needed.
  • Describe the desired outcome. Again, the key is to BRIEFLY assure the readers you understand their wants and needs.
  • Describe your proposed solution. This is your bottom line: what should your reader know or do to get the desired outcome?
  • Support your proposed solution. You want to give your reader a limited number of specific highlights from the report. Choose those that directly support your bottom line. And choose only those that require little, if any, detailed explanation.

Let’s consider how content from two sample executive summaries matches up. Both were written for clients by a team of consultants demonstrating the value of data analytics for the clients’ organization.

Executive Summary for Report A Executive Summary for Report B
Describing the problem, need, or goal of the reader In the United States, Louisiana ranks highest in automobile insurance rates—this is due in part to insurance fraud. Some but not all fraud is detected. Previous direct mail campaigns to reach new customers at Magazine Z resulted in an estimated annual net loss of $7K.
Describing the reader’s desired outcome A technique for better detecting fraudulent claims would deter them and lower insurance rates. A strategy for better predicting new customer response would improve return on investment.
Stating the bottom line (proposed solution) To identify those with the highest odds of being fraudsters, drivers were ranked by modeling (1) the number of crashes, (2) the total number of not-at-fault crashes, and (3) the total number of rear-end, not-at-fault crashes. To determine the probability of positive customer response, three campaign strategies were developed based on modeling the characteristics of the different sources of new customers.
Supporting the bottom line with specific highlights from the report We developed our model using crash data from 1999 to 2012 from the Highway Safety Research Group. We analyzed crash characteristics of drivers involved in two-vehicle, rear-end crashes…

The model successfully detected one convicted fraudster with 69 crashes who is currently awaiting sentencing…

Each strategy involves modeling customer age and campaign month. The distribution of age showed three distinct groups. In addition, each campaign month varied wildly in success…

Using one of our model-based strategies (for hunting and fishing licenses as a source of new customers) should result in an estimated positive return of $25K annually…

In both executive summaries, the consultants began by describing an existing problem and desired outcome of interest to the client in language an executive can quickly grasp: better fraud detection in Report A and better prediction of customer response in Report B. Getting this information up front is how the consultants demonstrated they listened to their clients.

Describing a problem is critical for all executive summaries because it makes explicit the connection between the detailed information in the report and the reader’s needs. Note that a 2016 report from MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS used the graphic below to demonstrate that data analytics rarely results in insights actually used to guide decision-making in organizations. I’m betting that, if analysts paid more attention to the organization’s problem/desired outcome, more of their insights would be applied.

Lack of Insight

Back to the report content in the table above… Because the bottom line for readers in both reports is similar (e.g., clients will recognize the value of data analytics for addressing their existing problems), both executive summaries focus on models created through data analysis: identifying fraudsters in Report A and predicting customer conversion in Report B.

In the remainder of both executive summaries, consultants supported their bottom line with selected details. Both provided some high-level content about their models in executive friendly language. They wisely omitted any detailed modeling information. That detail appeared within the body of the report. An executive reader could assign an in-house expert to review it but didn’t have to slog through it him/herself!

Consultants in both cases also highlighted a “sexy” finding in the executive summary: identification of an extreme and convicted fraudster in Report A and a dollar amount– estimated but positive–for the client’s ROI in Report B.

4. Organize and format your content for maximum reading efficiency

If the bottom line is complex, you must carefully implement effective organization and formatting techniques in your executive summary. Good Copy, Bad Copy consultants recommend:

  • Creating sub-headings is useful if your bottom line has multiple parts.
  • Using bullet points helps readers scan a list of short content items.
  • Limiting yourself to one page is more likely to achieve reader commitment.

Evaluating a Complete Executive Summary

Let’s look at a complete executive summary. I’ve chosen one somewhat randomly titled “Economic Impacts of the Louisiana Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit” prepared in 2015.

  • Writer: consultants at HR&A Advisors, Inc. in New York, NY
  • Readers: clients who commissioned the report were Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association (LFEA) and Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA)
  • Bottom line message: the Credit has had a positive economic and unclear fiscal impact on the state

As background, I should note the report is 69 pages long with five major sections:

  1. Introduction (pp. 7-11)
  2. The Louisiana Motion Picture and Television Industry (pp. 13-25)
  3. Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism in Louisiana (pp. 26-32)
  4. Economic Impact Analysis (pp. 33-41)
  5. Fiscal Impacts of Production Spending and Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism (pp. 42-43)

It also includes a technical (pp. 44-50) and a general (pp. 51-68) appendix, as well as disclaimers (p. 69). (If you’re interested, access the complete report.)

Clearly, the report’s length made an executive summary a requirement. As you can see below, the executive summary itself occupies roughly 1 and 1/3 pages (664 words).

If the writers had shared their draft with me before sending it to the intended readers (the clients who commissioned the report), I would offer the following observations.

My first point is that the content of most interest to readers is not at the beginning. Instead, it appears under the heading, “Summary of Findings.”  The heading is definitely helpful in pointing readers to what they want.  However, why place two full paragraphs of detail before the information of most interest to readers? To make matters worse, the first paragraph provides no information that would be new to the intended readers. Instead, it seems to be directed at a different audience. That’s a signal it doesn’t belong first in the executive summary.

The second paragraph may provide information that would be useful to some intended readers. But its primary value is as a means of organizing the bottom line about findings.

That brings me to my second point: the content of most interest is not organized for efficient comprehension.  You may object by noting the writers used bullet points. In this case, however, those bullets signify nothing more than a little white space at the beginning of a paragraph would. Readers have to read every word of every bullet in order to get the meaning.

Consider how much more impact the bottom line would have if it looked something like what I created below in a revised version of the original executive summary, which is half the length of the original (329 words).

In the revised version, I organized the bottom line findings to make them easier to scan. The second and third paragraphs now begin with the bottom line of the content that follows. (Think topic sentences.) Plus, I highlighted specific findings in a table with bullets and parallel content/form.

Note I also created some content at the beginning as my guidance above recommends. The document now describes a problem (i.e., impact of the Credit is undocumented) and a desired outcome (i.e., measurements of impact will determine the Credit’s value). I hope my readers agree that the revised version is more executive friendly.

As always, your comments are welcomed.

Research Sources

Here are some sources that support my guidance on writing executive summaries.

Clayton, J. (2003). Writing an executive summary that means business.Harvard Management Communication Letter, 6, 3-4.

Lagerwerf, L. and Bossers, E. (2002). Assessing business proposals: Genre conventions and audience response in document design. Journal of Business Communication, 39, 437-460.

Reave, L. (2002). Promoting innovation in the workplace: The internal proposal. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 8-21.

Roach, J., Tracy, D., & Durden, K. (2007). Integrating business core knowledge through upper division report composition. Business Communication Quarterly, 70, 431-449.

Van Nus, M. (1999). Business genres and their corporate context. Document Design, 1, 187-197.

Yeung, L. (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26, 156-179.

Read. Then write.

One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help novices become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully! The key to thoughtful reading is discussing the sample message in sufficient, relevant detail and connecting those details to future messages the writer will create.**

Here are the guidelines I’ve provided to those introducing novices to writing for workplace readers. They are more exhaustive than exemplary because I created them for an academic context. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. [Note: This is an updated post from a few years back.]

Goals

  • To read a workplace message critically (i.e., assess and explain its quality)
  • To practice analyzing the rhetorical context of workplace messages (i.e., relationship among message, writer, and audience)
  • To apply concepts from the workbook, Revising Professional Writing, and connect them to the grading rubrics we use

These goals are important to student success because the vast majority have little experience with workplace messages—especially with assessing their quality as a function of the rhetorical context.

For many decades now, nearly all language education in the US (from preschool through undergraduate) has focused on one text genre for reading (literature) and one text genre for writing (academic essays). The result is generations of adults who think reading is a puzzle-solving activity because the meaning is supposed to be “hidden,” while writing is supposed to impress an already knowledgeable audience (e.g., teachers). Adults, including our students, do not understand they have studied limited genres and that those genres didn’t teach them most of what they need to know about information development, organization, and style/tone for workplace messages.

Choosing a Sample Message

You must choose a message representing the genre of interest (i.e., sensitive letter, proposal, email announcement, etc.).  Students learn from discussion of any quality level of message samples (i.e., not mailable, mailable, or proud to mail). However, you must clearly identify the quality level of the message sample either before or after the activity.

Introducing the Activity

  1. Begin by announcing the discussion activity and the amount of time you have allotted for it. (It can be done in as little as 10 minutes.)
  2. Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
  3. Provide visuals as needed (the sample message, the relevant grading rubric, etc.) either as hard copy or as projections on the screen.

Asking the Right Questions (with video suggestions)

About the rhetorical context (Purpose; Audience):

  • Who is the writer? What is his/her organizational role?
  • What’s the bottom-line message?
  • Which of the four purposes (informing, directing, consulting, valuing) does the writer have for creating this message?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the writer (power difference, value difference, social distance)?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the message (knowledge level, sensitivity)?

About the effectiveness of the content of the message for this rhetorical context (Informative Prose; Persuasive Prose; Graphics):

  • Does the writer provide enough and the right kind of information (defining, describing, giving examples, comparing/contrasting, classifying, using outside sources)?
  • Does the writer provide evidence and interpretation for any claims?
  • Does the writer use graphics to enhance comprehension, usability, or feelings?
  • Does the writer use graphics that meet the audience’s need (to see surface detail = photograph; to see percentages of a whole = pie chart; to see steps in a process = flow chart, etc.)?
  • Do graphics use accurate and consistent proportions? Do they include labels, titles, and captions? Does the writer integrate the graphic into the text?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization of content for this rhetorical context (Bottom Line; Paragraph Unity; Cohesion; Transitions):

  • Where is the bottom-line? Is this placement effective for the audience? Why?
  • What order is the content presented in? Is that order effective for the audience?
  • Do paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Are all sentences in each paragraph clearly related? Are paragraphs relatively short?
  • Do sentences or sections of the message have explicit transitions that guide the audience through the writer’s logic?
  • Does the writer organize to enhance efficiency for reading?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the style for this rhetorical context (Conciseness; Voice; Parallelism; Word Choice; Tone):

  • Is the style appropriately concise?
  • Does the writer present parallel items in parallel form?
  • Is the style appropriately active or passive?
  • Is the word choice appropriate?
  • Is the level of formality appropriate?
  • Does the writer’s style achieve reader-orientation?
  • Is the level of directness appropriate?
  • Are presuppositions used only when the audience will agree with the writer?

About the visual impression of the message for this rhetorical context (Format):

  • Is the page layout (margins & other white space, line spacing, justification, color, etc.) effective?
  • Is typography (typeface, size, position, boldface, etc.) used consistently and for emphasis?
  • Are any groups of items presented in a list with characters or numbers to enumerate them?
  • Does the writer create a visual text that enhances efficiency for reading?

About the mechanics of the message for this rhetorical context (Punctuation; Agreement):

  • Is a written message effective and efficient or should the writer choose another medium?
  • Are there misspellings or typos that will distract the reader from the content of the message?
  • Are there sentence fragments, comma splices, or any other punctuation issues that are likely to distract the reader?
  • Are there any subject-verb disagreement issues that will be distracting?

Leading Discussion

When leading discussion, prompt students to provide answers to these questions and to link those answers to specific places in the sample message. This will not come naturally to most undergraduate students. For example, you may not be successful in getting good discussion about style by asking something general like “How effective is the style in this message?” Instead, students are likely to need more specific questions, such as “Do you think the style is concise?” Or even “Is the style of the first paragraph concise? Give me a specific example.” Obviously, you can lead the discussion most effectively when you have already analyzed the message on your own before the class meeting.

Providing the Take-away

  1. Summarize the main points, especially as the discussion applies to future writing assignments. (You can ask different groups to keep a list of main points for a specific area during the discussion.)
  2. Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.

Footnote

** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy.  Ken Hyland used the following table to show that even elementary students can be taught to read — and then write — a range of genres. I dream of such a world–where students learn to communicate with an audience in writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a blurred memory. Sigh . . .

Related Research

Hyland, K. (2007). Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, pp. 148-63.

Choose active vs. passive voice strategically

schoolmarmNo grammatical construction raises the ire of writing “experts” like the passive. Geoff Pullum (a regular contributor to Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education) provided two marvelous examples in a research paper titled “Fear and loathing of the English passive.”

The passive voice liquidates and buries the active individual, along with most of the awful truth. Our massed, scientific, and bureaucratic society is so addicted to it that you must constantly alert yourself against its drowsy, impersonal pomp.

and

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Take a second to let those sink in. We are talking about sentence structure, aren’t we?

Pullum’s research article concluded by noting that advice to avoid passives is “bogus” and often provided by people who are “commonly hopeless at distinguishing passives from actives.” As I’ve written here before, any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Real experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the vitriol surrounding passive voice, let’s move on to some guidance backed by research. Here are two versions of the same fictional news story from the Stroppy Editor:

  1. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.
  2. A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

Version 2 is superior if the writer’s goal is to convey a message to readers clearly and efficiently. Yet each of its four sentences is constructed in passive voice (i.e., …been discovered…been shown…were…cured…be approved…). Readers of Version 2 can’t miss the focus of the passage: a new drug.  Not so in Version 1, where all four sentences use active voice but focus on different things.

It turns out that passive voice is useful in some situations–like maintaining thematic flow. Active voice is useful in others–like establishing a personal style or tone. Your choice should be strategic. That means based on the rhetorical context: your purpose, your reader’s needs, and the content of your message.

Active/passive voice is explained in Chapter 13 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to distinguish between active and passive voice and then choose between them for strategic reasons. Here are some additional resources to help you master the choice:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with other resources.

Sample Document

Review the document below. It is based on one from Susan M. Heathfield for About.com on Human Resources, but it has been adapted specifically to show how pros use active and passive voice in workplace documents.

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with strategically chosen active/passive voice.

Video Tutorial

The letter is included in this ~13-minute video about voice in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with passive vs. active voice. Just enter “passive” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might begin with the following sources.

Kies, D. (1985). Some stylistic features of business and technical writing: The functions of passive voice, nominalization, and agency. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 15, 299-308.

Millar, N., Budgell, B. & Fuller, K. (2013) ‘Use the active voice whenever possible’: The impact of style guidelines in medical journals. Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 393–414.

Pullum, G.K. (2014). Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication, 37, 60-74.

Riley, K. (1991). Passive voice and the rhetorical role in scientific writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21, 239-257.

Learn to analyze a workplace audience to deliver an effective message

Know your audience. This would count as a platitude for good writing without some specifics. So this post provides a specific system for analyzing a workplace audience. That system requires writers to assess two aspects of their situation–the context of their message:  (1) their relationship with the audience and (2) their audience’s readiness to accept the message.

An earlier post used the example of writing a letter soliciting sponsorships for First Tee of Tuscaloosa from local businesses. Here’s what I wrote about audience readiness in that situation.

  1. How much expertise do readers have about the message? For the entire group of readers, the writer guessed there was moderately low knowledge of First Tee, especially of its goals (which focus on life skills rather than golf). This meant the letter has to educate or inform the audience.
  2. How sensitive are readers to the message? Overall, the writer predicted moderately low sensitivity because the sponsorships were cheap and included advertising at the First Tee site and events. But the writer still had to persuade them to act.

As another illustration of the importance of readiness, check out these examples used by Victor Yucco in Framing effective messages to motivate your users.

Today’s mortgage APR: 3.75% for a 30-year fixed mortgage. Save today!

Many, although not all, North American readers are able to understand the message. For those who don’t, additional informative content is needed like a definition for the abbreviation or a comparison of fixed versus variable mortgages.

But even for those who comprehend the message, they may not be willing to accept it. That’s why Yucco presents the following version as an improvement.

Today’s mortgage APR is at an all time low of 3.75%. Complete our pre-qualification form now to lock in this rate. This rate would save you enough money on a $250,000 loan over 20 years to send your child to college when compared to an increase of just 1%, which could happen at any time.

To address audience willingness, the writer created persuasive content, such as emphasizing the need to act now and describing the financial gain from doing so with an example of significance to the target audience.  (Yucco summarizes research on framing based on health research–see below.)

My point here is that an audience must be ready–both able and willing–to accept a message. If you haven’t analyzed your audience’s readiness, your message is likely to be ineffective. The same is true for your need to reflect on your relationship with the audience before you write.

Audience analysis in a workplace setting is explained in Chapter 2 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises that require you to analyze a workplace audience and consider the implications for creating a written message. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document
  • two brief video tutorials
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with helpful resources.

Sample Document

Review the abatement notice created by me for instructional purposes based on information available from Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

  • Writer: the owner of a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s employees and OSHA officials
  • Bottom Line Message: three hazards identified during an OSHA inspection have been addressed

Video Tutorials

I’ve split the video tutorial on audience into two, shorter ones. The abatement notice is included in both.

Related Readings

There aren’t many posts here at Pros Write that don’t deal with audience. If you enter “audience” in the search field near the top of this page, you’ll get about 10 results. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, there are countless possibilities. You might begin with the following sources.

Austin et al. (2009). Using framing theory to unite the field of injury and violence prevention and response: “Adding Power to Our Voices.” Social Marketing Quarterly,
15(S1), 35-54.

Hersey & Blanchard (1988). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Prentice Hall.

Hofstede (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage.

Create logical flow between sentences to promote accurate and efficient reading

I have argued that sentence variety is the enemy of efficiency. People read more accurately and efficiently when all the elements of a document are tightly connected. This includes the connection between consecutive sentences. I refer to this as cohesion (sometimes referred to as Functional Sentence Perspective by linguists).

My experience is that most adults are able to create cohesive prose at the sentence level without explicit instruction. But, for those without this skill, the problem is truly critical. Their readers struggle to read their prose and make comments about awkwardness, lack of logical “flow,” or–the most damning–the quality of the writer’s education. The kicker is that few writing teachers I’ve known understand how to help. Responding as a reader or editor is not the same as teaching.

Cohesion is briefly explained in Chapter 8 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with the logical flow of information. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if there’s something else you’d like to see.

Sample Document

Review a copy of the letter to a supplier. It was adapted by me based on a sample from ForestEthics (forestethics.org). The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: the owner of an office supply store
  • Readers: representatives of the store’s suppliers of wood-based products
  • Bottom line message: the suppliers need to provide information about the sources of their products

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with more effective cohesion.

Video Tutorial

The letter to a supplier is included in this <12-minute video about cohesion in workplace documents.

For more on flow, check out this video from the writing center at the University of North Carolina.

Related Readings

There are not many posts here at Pros Write that deal with cohesion because it is relatively rare problem for adult native English speakers.  If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Clark, H. H., & Haviland, S. E. (1977). Comprehension and the given-new contract. Discourse Production and Comprehension. Discourse Processes: Advances in Research and Theory1, 1-40.

Crossley, S. A., Allen, D., & McNamara, D. S. (2012). Text simplification and comprehensible input: A case for an intuitive approach. Language Teaching Research, 16(1), 89-108.

Kopple, W. J. V. (1982). Functional sentence perspective, composition, and reading. College composition and communication, 50-63.

More on word choice in evaluations of men and women

Today, I’m following up on a short post about the use of the word abrasive in performance reviews for women. Similar discussions of word choice in student evaluations of college professors have been a hot topic in the past week. See Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant in the New York Times. Or in Inside Higher Ed yesterday:

A law dean last month urged students to stop commenting on female professors’ attire in reviews, noting that they don’t do so in the same way for men.

Professor Benjamin Schmidt provides an interactive chart for viewing the distribution of words used to describe male and female instructors in a range of disciplines based on reviews from RateMyProfessor.com. Use of abrasive, although relatively rare (e.g., appearing twice per million words for accounting instructors), still appears to be linked to gender. The chart plots its use in negative reviews. What’s up with students of criminal justice and political science?

abrasive negativeHere are the results for rude. Note that this word is far more commonly used (e.g., between 250 to 850 appearances per million in negative reviews). And it is clearly attributed more often to female than male instructors across nearly every discipline.

rude negative

I encourage you to do your own searches. And, for those who want to investigate Schmidt’s methodology, he explains details of the sample, etc. on his website

If the tool itself interests you, it’s called Bookworm. You can use it to explore lexical trends in texts collected by the developers or even in your own. 

What word is used only in a woman’s performance review?

Wanted to share this piece from Fast Company even though I have no time to elaborate today. (Tip o’ the hat to Marie Paretti for sharing it!) Those of you who write performance reviews for women need to reflect on your word choice. And what it says about you!

The answer = abrasive. 

sexism-what-can-I-do

The genre of responses to research article reviews

fighting criticsThis post continues my series on research articles (RAs). This time I’m addressing the all-important response to RA reviews. Mastering this genre is critical for anyone whose job includes publication in peer-reviewed journals. (If you want a little background, see this post.) When resubmitting a revised RA for potential publication, the authors must include a response to the reviews received on their initial submission, along with the revised RA.

One key to developing a document in this genre is for authors to get past their emotional reaction. Anger and frustration are normal emotional responses to RA reviews. But, like all professionals, researchers have to move past those emotions to be successful. Although it’s a challenge for all researchers to learn how to create this genre, non-native English speakers have even greater challenges. They are the target of much of the research on writing RAs and related genres as well as a host of author support services (like Editage.).

As usual, my approach to describing a genre builds on the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) practice of describing a set of rhetorical moves, each of which can often be broken down into more detailed steps.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Responses to RA Reviews

A document people recognize as a typical response to reviewers includes at least five rhetorical moves: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) signaling attention to the review comments, (3) claiming positive results, (4) previewing content, and (5) responding to specific comments. One additional move appears to be optional: (6) claiming solidarity. The table below breaks down those rhetorical moves into more detailed steps and provides examples from four actual samples. (Identifying information has been removed; I’ve used pseudonyms rather than titles of actual publications.)

 

A Comparison of Textual Elements

Details for the pattern of textual elements found within the four responses to reviews are summarized below.

    Overall Usage Examples
Style Elements Tense Past (simple & perfect) = high 1.     We condensed the literature review . . .
2.     While avoidance was a key aspect . . .
3.     We have revised our paper . . .
4.     . . . we have gone to great lengths . . .
Present = mid to high 1.     This is an important point . . .
2.     We find the opposite result . . .
3.     There is adequate evidence to . . .
4.     We absolutely agree with . . .
5.     We provide more detail below . . .
Future = low No examples identified
  Passive Usage = mid 1.     This view is reinforced by B&S (2005) . . .
2.     . . . it should be mentioned . . .
3.     . . . participants were informed . . .1.     Below, we describe the changes . . .
2.     . . . we present cross-sectional regressions . . .
3.     . . . we actually had some data . . .
  Pronouns 1st person = high 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     We thank Reviewer A for the constructive comments . . .
3.     We agree and have removed most of this discussion . . .
2nd person = mid 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     While your prior comments are focused on . . .
3.     As you say . . .
3rd person = low 1.     Participants were informed . . . they would receive . . .
2.     Discussions with managers . . . reveal that they typically ask . . .
3.     . . . outlined by you and the reviewers . . .
4.     As suggested by Reviewer B . . .
  Hedging Usage = high 1.     We feel the literature provides a clear . . .
2.     We hope that we were more clear . . .
3.     If we attempted to . . . it would have taken away from . . .
4.     . . . we have tried to better explain . . .
5.     For now, we have not delved deeply . . .
Organization Elements Headings Usage = high 1.     Editor Response Memo . . . Description of New Data . . . Responses to Reviewer A . . .
2.     RC1-1 [Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . AR1-1 [Author Response to Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . RC1-2 . . . AR1-2 . . .
Number or bullet lists Usage = low 1.     Responses to Reviewer A: (1) . . . (2) . . . (3) . . .
Page numbers or pointers Usage = high 1.     See new development on pp. 9-12 . . .
2.     . . . they are stated in the 1st full paragraph on p.5.
3.     We added such a table . . . (Table 2) . . .
4.     We have rewritten Section 2.5 . . .

Usage of some style elements seems obvious for the rhetorical purposes within this genre. For instance, the relative importance of past tense and first person pronouns means that authors spent considerable time reporting what they had done: Move 2 (signaling attention to review comments) and Move 5, Step 5c (describing specific revisions). As another example, use of hedges was high because authors qualified their claims–in typical academic style. Authors in this genre also have to be careful to achieve a polite tone when disagreeing with referee comments.

Other aspects of style are less obvious. For example, note that, despite the frequent use of first person, passive voice was fairly common. This is true not because authors are unwilling to refer directly to themselves but because passive is a key tool in creating cohesion.

The four samples of this genre used lots of headings but few lists to organize their content. (I’ve sometimes used tables to organize the steps in Move 5.) The samples also used a multitude of page numbers or other pointers to link their response to RA reviews clearly to their revised manuscript. This is a key feature of successful documents in this genre. Authors are more likely to succeed when they make it easy for editors and referees to find what they’re looking for.

Research Resources

I haven’t located any research directly related to this genre. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!

 

The genre of research article reviews

In order to respond to reviews of research articles (RAs) submitted for publication, researchers have to be astute readers of those reviews.  Plus, novice researchers are usually asked to write their own reviews of research during their doctoral studies–often beginning with papers (or abstracts) submitted to conferences. We developed a rhetorical move structure (see definition #2 of the about.com link) for describing the content+structure of journal submission reviews last spring in my doctoral seminar. I thought it was worth sharing as I get ready to lead that seminar for a new group of students.

I’ve written several posts about the genre of RAs. (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by genre, read Pros have contextualized knowledge.) My approach to describing a genre builds on the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) body of work. Basically, a document people recognize as a particular genre will include a set of rhetorical moves, each of which can often be broken down into more detailed steps. You’ll see an example below. Or you can check out any of my posts filed under Crafting a Genre.

Brief Background on Journal Submission Review (for novices)

Peer review has been the cornerstone of research dissemination for at least a couple of hundred years. Here’s the reasoning. Research quality should be judged by experts (that is, peers) before it is published. The practice of peer review has been much criticized because of some truly abominable behavior by a small number of individuals. And there are ways to “publish” research without having it reviewed by peers. But there’s little to suggest traditional peer review will end any time in the near future. Publication of quality research is a core job requirement for university professors across the globe in every academic discipline (from accounting to zoology).

So how does peer review work? For anyone outside a university setting who is still reading, it’s important to understand that much of the journal publication process is completed by volunteers. Reviewers (also called “referees”) earn no money from their work on behalf of journals. Often editors of those journal also earn little to nothing. (They do sometimes get a small stipend from a professional organization that sponsors the journal or some release time from other duties from their employer.) And authors are not paid for work that is published; in some disciplines, they must actually pay a fee. So all of this labor is actually paid for by the employers of experts: mostly universities, with some stand-alone research labs or organizations. Once an RA is accepted for publication, there are paid staff in a publishing company who handle production and delivery of the journal in several issues per year.

Here’s how the peer review process happens. An author submits an RA to a journal. The journal’s editor reads the RA to determine whether it is appropriate to send it to referees. If the editor believes the RA is inappropriate, he or she sends a “desk rejection” letter to the author, and that’s the end of the process. If the editor believes the RA is potentially publishable, he or she chooses referees and invites two or more of them to review the submission. In many disciplines, the standard practice is called “double blind” review so that the identities of both author and referee are unknown to everyone except the editor. (In practice, the blindness isn’t always complete.)

Once referees return their reviews, the editor makes a publication decision and communicates it to the author. The editor’s letter will include the referees’ comments–either to help the author revise the RA for publication in the editor’s journal (that’s a revise & resubmit–R&R–decision) or in another journal (that’s a rejection decision). The likelihood of the editor sending a letter accepting an RA for publication as it was submitted is just about zero. The editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics provided an interesting explanation of their specific process.

The review process involves occluded genres. That is, editor letters and referee reports are private rather than public artifacts. That makes it challenging to learn about them. Editors are the lynchpin. If you’re interested, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) produces ethical standards for journal editors.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Editor R&R Letters

Although journal editors write several types of letters, my interest here is in the R&R letter because authors must use it as the basis for revising their RA before it can be resubmitted to the journal for potential publication. Basically, a document people recognize as an editor’s R&R letter includes five rhetorical moves: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) stating the publication decision, (3) justifying the decision, (4) providing directions for revision, and (5) maintaining goodwill. The table below breaks down those rhetorical moves into more detailed steps and provides examples from two actual editor letters. (Identifying information has been removed. Accounting Journal and Marketing Journal are pseudonyms rather than titles of actual publications.)

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Referee Comments

Step 2b of the editor letter refers to the referees’ comments. Wise authors read these as carefully as the editor letter. Referee reports include at least three moves: (1) summarizing the submitted RA, (2) providing positive feedback, and (3) commenting on negative quality issues. Two previous studies of referee comments support a similar move structure. An optional fourth move involves maintaining goodwill. See the examples below, which were sent along with the editor letters above.

 

A Comparison of Textual Elements

The inclusion of organizational signals (headings and numbering or bullet lists) is more common in referee reports than in editor letters. Tone elements demonstrate that sensitivity to author feelings is different for editors than for reviewers, but some reviewers’ tone is more sensitive than others. Details are described below.

  Tone Elements Organizational Elements
Sub-genres Pronouns Hedging Directness
(requests)
Presuppositions (reader truths) Headings Numbering or Bullets
Editor Letter 1st person (editor) = high
2nd person (author) = high
3rd person (reviewers) = mid
Moderate Moderate Minimal conflict Low Low
Referee Reports 1st person (reviewer) = high
2nd person (author) = low
3rd person (author) = high
Low to moderate Moderate to High Minimal to Some conflict Mid Mid

One tone comparison can be made with hedging the meaning of a claim. (Red text represents less sensitive and green more sensitive tone choices.) (1a) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “I feel that the paper has been reasonably well-written.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes more sensitively, “Considering her/his comments may enhance the insights . . .” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “Isn’t the finding then a mere confirmation?”, while another Marketing Journal reviewer writes more sensitively, “Some of the covariates that you use could be better used as grouping factors.”

Another comparison can be made with directness of a heavily weighted request: (1a) the Accounting Journal editor writes sensitively, “One way to address this latter issue, as Reviewer A notes, is to perform the test using only those…”; (1b) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “your discussion may address this line of thinking by discussing …” or “It would have been useful to have a dependent variable the explored the nature of the evidence sought…” but less sensitively, “The authors need to provide convincing arguments as to why this alternative explanation is not feasible.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes sensitively, “please concentrate on the following in the Revision …” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “I therefore strongly suggest that the authors specify …” while another Marketing Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “you may wish to suggest …” and “you can compare O&A and J&C more directly …”

A final comparison can be made with presupposition that involves conflict with the author: (1a) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “The only effect on the hypotheses would be to add …” but less sensitively, “The authors claim that all four criteria listed in the footnote can be found…” or “ The theoretical development … ignoring all the prior research demonstrating the unique nature of auditing” and “there is a valid counterargument.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes sensitively, “If you decide to accept my invitation to revise and resubmit, …” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “The manuscript claims to present three intriguing findings:” and “The authors should always report both measures of internal consistency reliability …”

It seems obvious that the anonymity of reviewers may influence their desire to manage author feelings.  Looks like an area ripe for research.

Research Sources

Disclaimer: The information in this post is based on limited data and does not offer conclusions based on published research.  (I just need to find time!)

Fortanet (2008). Evaluative language in peer review referee reports. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 7, pp. 27-37.

Gosden (2003). ‘Why not give us the full story?’: Functions of referees’ comments in peer reviews of scientific research papers. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2, pp. 87-101.

Swales & Feak (1994). Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.