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.

Does essay writing help you succeed as a writer at work?

Today’s post is in honor of the National Day on Writing. U.S. students spend years writing essays. They believe they know how to write. (And also often believe that writing is meaningless.) What they do not know is that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, content) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in effective written messages. That’s called genre awareness.

The situation means you shouldn’t be surprised that workplace novices write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. Many non-academics complain. Loudly. Here’s a small selection of such complaints. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

There is definitely evidence that such complaints should be interpreted carefully. (See The myth of job readiness? Written communication, employability, and the ‘skills gap’ in higher education.) That doesn’t mean students gain genre awareness before they enter the work force.

Let me share a story that makes my point. [A version appeared on Pros Write a couple of years ago.] Through some odd luck, Pat was enrolled in a university writing course at the same time she was working as an intern at a food manufacturing company. As part of her internship experience, Pat shadowed her manager-mentor on a safety inspection of the company’s Atlanta manufacturing facility. (I have to thank Ron Dulek for part of this story.) The day before her trip to the plant, Pat’s writing teacher asked the class to write a narrative essay. At the end of the trip, Pat’s mentor asked her to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo.  Poor Pat!

Pat decided her plant visit could supply the content for her essay assignment. She wrote the essay first because she was more confident about her ability to please her teacher than her mentor. At this point in her life, Pat had written dozens of essays but not one compliance report or memo. In fact, she had never even seen such documents. She began her essay like this:

On June 3, 2012, I conducted an audit at the Atlanta branch of Allgood, Inc., in regards to safety handling and compliance rules. I was escorted on a tour of the facility by B. A. McCoy, who has served as the Assistant Plant Manager for 17 years.

Once Pat finished her essay, she used it as the first draft of her compliance report. While she revised some of the essay’s content, she left the first few sentences the same.

Pat’s writing teacher assigned her a “B” on her essay. However, Pat’s mentor told her she would have to rewrite the report because it was not acceptable–especially the beginning, which should have stated clearly whether or not the plant was in compliance. Pat’s head almost exploded!  Imagine putting the conclusion first. (If you recognize this story, it’s because I’ve told it in many lectures and wrote about it in my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing.)

Imagine how different Pat’s experience would have been if she had been asked to read even one brief workplace report during her 14 years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided Pat in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? If all of that happened, Pat would have developed genre awareness. She would have received a rhetorical education that would lead to better workplace success!

Of course, when teachers spend time on genre awareness, they are not aiding students in their quest to ace the essay writing required for academic purposes. I mean the high stakes writing “tests” used to determine college or grad school admissions or scholarship offers. Shame on higher ed!

I salute all of those teachers who promote genre awareness just because it’s best for their students in the long run. Keep fighting the good fight. I’ll be standing beside you.

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.

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.

What have we learned about content (and its purpose) in white papers?

If you’re in Pittsburgh today, come hear Jef Naidoo and me try to answer this question at IPCC 2014.  Here’s more detail than we’ll be able to cover in 20 minutes. (We have a couple of related details about white papers to share as well.)

Why are we studying white papers?

They’re important to organizations. Here’s some evidence from sources about white papers across all industries: used and trusted as a key buying decision tool by over 64% of early stage buyers and 61% of middle stage buyers (SiriusDecisions, 2010).

And here’s some evidence (Ziff Davis Enterprise, 2010) from the high-tech world:

  • 35% of IT Professionals use them for awareness and finding ideas
  • 33% of IT Professionals use them for finding vendors or comparing them
  • 23% of IT Professionals use them for creating a short list and for vendor evaluation
  • 10% of IT Professionals use them for making a final decision

I wrote earlier that little scholarly research has been done. I also posted what Jef and I have learned so far about information design in white papers. But my aim in this post is to talk about patterns of content/purpose in white papers.

How did we study content/purpose in white papers?

We collected a corpus of 20 recent, high-tech marketing white papers from TechRepublic with the “top rated” label in two topic areas: business intelligence (BI) and security (S). My post on information design gives more detail about the corpus.

The figure summarizes the process we used to identify the rhetorical move structure (focus on definition #2) for high-tech marketing white papers. (You can also read about this approach in a book by Biber available from Google books.) The results are shown in the document below.  To understand how we created that document, I’ve included a diagram of the process.

We began to develop it by looking at other studies of rhetorical move structure in related genres (e.g., proposals and research articles); we reviewed the few research studies available, as well as guidance from recognized experts on white papers (see this post for a summary); we compared what we learned from those first two sources to two sample white papers to create the first version of what you see below.

Rhetorical Move Structure ProcessJef and I refined our guesses by independently applying them to three sample white papers. We met, discussed, and revised to create the second version of what you see below.

We trained research assistants to apply the rhetorical move structure in the three sample white papers. Those discussions resulted in a few more revisions.

At this stage, those two raters are coding the corpus of 20 white papers, using the document shown below as a key.

The examples in the key refer to the three white papers we used in training. Follow the links to retrieve them.

If you don’t want all of the details about the rhetorical move structure we are testing, this figure from our slides provides the big picture. Slide07

When our raters are done, we will compute the reliability of their codes to determine whether our rhetorical move structure can be applied consistently or will need further revision. Although we’re not there yet, we are close to having some findings we can share!

The slide you see hints that there is one area (linguistic qualities) that I haven’t written anything about yet. Stay tuned . . .

Related Research

U. Connor (2000). Variation in rhetorical moves in grant proposals of US humanists and scientists. Text, 20(1), pp. 1–28.

J. Naidoo & K.S. Campbell (2014). A Genre Analysis of High-Tech Marketing White Papers: A Report of Research-in-progress.IPCC Proceedings. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE.

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

L. Yeung (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26(2), pp. 156–179.

S. Zhou (2012) ‘Advertorials’: A genre-based analysis of an emerging hybridized genre. Discourse Communication, 6(3), pp. 323–346.

What have we learned about information design in white papers?

Not too long ago, I concluded that we need some research on white papers if we want to offer evidence-based guidance for their writers. (You can get some background with my summary of the available evidence on writing white papers and more about what experts say about developing content for white papers.)  We — that’s Dr. Jefrey Naidoo and me — have been at work on that research so I thought I’d offer what we’ve learned so far about information design within this genre.

[Some updates made October 12, 2014]

What We Did

We collected a corpus of 20 recent, high-tech marketing white papers from TechRepublic with the “top rated” label in two topic areas: business intelligence (BI) and security (S). The table provides basic info about our corpus (the 20 sample white papers).

No. Topic Title Sponsor Date
1 BI Building your Ecommerce Strategy: Four Steps for Getting Started Rackspace 2013
2 BI Taming the Data Beast Dell 2012
3 BI The Risks of Using Spreadsheets for Statistical Analysis IBM 2013
4 BI Improving Engagement with Multi-Channel Service Aberdeen Group 2012
5 BI Managing your Error-Prone Spreadsheets IBM 2013
6 BI Optimizing Storage with All-Flash Solutions IDC 2013
7 BI Expanding BI’s Role by Including Predictive Analytics SAP 2009
8 BI Reaping the Benefits of Next Generation Dashboards SAP 2010
9 BI The Value of Social Data Oracle 2013
10 BI Types of Electrical Meters in Data Centers Schneider Electric 2013
11 S Avoiding the Pitfalls of Outdated Disaster Recovery Plans IBM 2013
12 S Getting the Most Out of Your Next Generation Firewall Cisco 2013
13 S Samsung KNOX: An Overview for Business Customers Centrify 2013
14 S Best Practices Guide for IT Governance & Compliance Dell 2012
15 S IT Security. Fighting the Silent Retreat Kaspersky Lab 2013
16 S Who’s Spying On You: No Business is Safe From Cyberespionage Kaspersky Lab 2013
17 S Networking for Cloud Computing IBM 2013
18 S Symantec Intelligence Report: January 2014 Symantec 2013
19 S Post-breach Survival Guide INetU 2013
20 S Building a Better Network Security Strategy HP 2014

[Update: For this corpus, each white paper averaged 12 pages and ~3,500 words, with a range of 4 to 29 pages and ~950 to 7,000 words.]

What We Have Learned about Their Design

Our corpus suggests white papers are overwhelmingly produced as conventional business reports:

  • all print on standard paper size (8.5×11 or A4) although one prints as a booklet with a single page folded in half
  • 13 include a cover page
  • 17 appear in portrait orientation, while two use landscape orientation and one mixes orientations

In general, our corpus shows that the page design of high-tech marketing white papers is fairly sophisticated. Because these documents strive to generate sales leads, their sponsors are investing resources in their production. For example, of our 20 samples, at least 7 were written by an external author on behalf of the sponsoring organization.

Evidence of sophisticated design — 12 of 20 use a two-column layout for the body of the document, and 16 of 20 use sidebars or call-outs to highlight content. In the sample below, the purple boxes present stats of predicted interest on the left-hand page and the blue boxes present quotes from authorities on the right-hand page. Sidebars in white papers_Page_04

This sample also demonstrates the use of color, another relatively sophisticated design element. None of our 20 samples were produced in black and white, and only one used fewer than three colors. Because white papers are delivered almost entirely in electronic form, Russell Willerton (whose research is cited below) has warned that the use of color may be problematic if potential customers are printing the documents in black and white to read.

[sidebar] This is probably a good time to note that we’re not judging the effectiveness of white paper design at this point. We know that using the gray background for body text in the sample above flies in the face of guidance for producing legible text. But, at this point, our goal is simply descriptive. We want to collect a body of evidence about what top-rated white paper sponsors actually produce. You have to start at the beginning, folks. [end sidebar]

Before I leave the topic of sophistication, I’ll disclose that only 9 of the 20 samples displayed balanced margins. Most used large left (or right) margins and a couple used large bottom margins. See the examples below. A generous amount of real estate on each page was occupied by white space.

large left margin
large left margin
large bottom margin
large bottom margin

Distribution of Graphic Types in White PapersSlide1Our corpus shows these white papers include multiple types of informative graphics: an average of two different informative graphic types per sample.  (Of the 20 samples, only 3 had no informative graphics at all.) The distribution of types appears in the bar graph above. Diagrams like the one at left appeared in more than half of the corpus. Tables, photos, and bar graphs appeared in more than a quarter. These graphics are not simply decorative but convey content.  We intend to calculate words per page as a measure of text- vs. visual-density.  But you’ll have to wait for those results. [Update: Words per page ranges from ~30 to 550.]

Our corpus also demonstrates that sans serif typefaces are the predominant choice for paragraph text in white papers. Of our 20 samples, 15 used these sans serif typefaces:

  • Arial (2)
  • Nautilus Monoline (2) (see the visual at right)Slide1
  • Myriad Headline (2)
  • AG Book Extended
  • FF Basic Gothic
  • FP Public
  • JAF Bernina
  • Nina (Microsoft)
  • PTL Maurea
  • Trump Gothic East
  • Univers Extended

These 5 serif typefaces were used for body text:

  • Bingo Serif
  • Farmhouse
  • Janson
  • Mafra
  • Non Solus

All typefaces were identified using IdentiFont — a nifty tool. But we need some corroboration that our results are accurate. No doubt some of you are thinking the choice of sans serif typefaces runs counter to prevailing wisdom. . . Just remember our goal is descriptive at this stage.

Conclusions

Our results corroborate Willerton’s when he interviewed white paper readers. Overall, the information design in high-tech marketing white papers is somewhat more sophisticated than an in-house business report. But those few with the most sophisticated design (landscape orientation and low text-density) definitely stand out.  And not in a good way.  As one of Willerton’s interviewees explained, white papers should look

clean, minimal and professional

because, as another interviewee stated,

the IT guy reading the paper might get suspicious of all that color

We presume that non-standard page orientation and low text-density would also elicit reader suspicions about the relative value of a white paper’s content. [Update: The white paper with ~30 words per page is certainly a case in point.]

What’s Next?

I’m only updating you on the information design features we’ve identified at this point. We are also analyzing the rhetorical move structure and linguistic features (think: style) of the corpus. In fact, Jef and I are meeting with our coders for the rhetorical move structure analysis this very morning. We will be talking about this research at the IEEE’s International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) at Carnegie Mellon University on October 14.  Hope to see some of you there!

Further Reading

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

What (else) do we know about writing white papers?

A couple of months ago, I summarized the available evidence on writing white papers. I’ve done more digging and want to provide a follow-up with a few more details on developing content, organizing it, and using an appropriate style. (See the earlier post for a description of the white paper as a genre.)  The bottom line is that we still don’t have definitive guidance based on quality evidence. I’m planning to fill in the blanks with some of my own research. In fact, I’m completing a proposal to present a paper on this topic with a colleague at the IEEE’s International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) at Carnegie Mellon next October.

Photo Credit: paurian via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: paurian via Compfight cc

[begin sidebar] Just a word about the sources I consulted (listed at the end of this post). I mentioned only three experts in my earlier post. I still refer to Russell Willerton’s research, including a couple of articles I hadn’t read earlier, and Cynthia McPherson’s dissertation as the best evidence available. Both authors have investigated white papers systematically, and somewhat objectively, based on data. And I purchased a data-based report from Michael Stelzner, who was also mentioned in my original post. Stelzner’s report is based on a survey of hundreds of white paper writers in 2006. Willerton has generously guided my digging, and I uncovered a couple of experts I did not mention earlier: Gordon Graham (author of White Papers for Dummies) and Bob Bly (author of The White Paper Marketing Handbook). I investigated Graham’s website, but like Stelzner’s website and book, the information is highly subjective so I find it less persuasive. I read an article by Bly, which is also based on personal experience. (I’ve written before about the limitations of personal experience as evidence.) [end sidebar]

Developing the Content of a White Paper

Developing content is the area sources talk most about when discussing white papers. I created a table to show the most common areas mentioned about content. I should remind you that McPherson was considering a much broader range of white papers than any of the other authors. The others are all basically interested in marketing by tech companies — arguably the most common source of white papers.  See a syndicator of white papers for evidence: Bitpipe or KnowledgeStorm or TechRepublic.

Willerton

McPherson

Stelzner

Graham

Bly

Determine specific goal

Persuade through informing

Do secondary research

Cite secondary sources

Interview SMEs

Be current

Create informative graphics

My sources provide near universal recommendations to determine a specific marketing goal for a white paper. As Willerton said,

“Increasing sales” is a good goal, but it is too broad; you must know how your white paper will fit into the sales cycle with your prospective customers.

Stelzner’s survey of writers found that generating sales leads was the most popular marketing use for white papers.

All of the sources discussing high tech marketing white papers agree that effective ones adopt a “softsell” approach where persuasion is secondary to informing or educating readers.  Graham writes,

If you can’t avoid giving a sales pitch, don’t call what you’re writing a white paper. Just write a brochure, a sales letter or a product brief; then call it what it is.

The one universal recommendation is to do good secondary research as the basis for the content of a white paper. Almost all sources also note the importance of explicitly citing those sources in a white paper. And the three practitioner sources agree that interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) is essential to writing a quality white paper.

Most sources agree on the need for informative (not superfluous) graphics to support the verbal content of a white paper. Finally, a couple of sources mention the time-sensitive nature of white paper content. Willerton found that readers believe white papers have a limited shelf life.

Organizing the Content of a White Paper

My sources provide near universal mention of two aspects of organizing content for a white paper once its been developed:

  • Begin with the reader’s problem or challenge before describing your solution or product.
  • Use effective and efficient document design to help readers scan and navigate the white paper’s content.

It looks like both Stelzner’s and Graham’s books provide more guidance on the sections of content and their optimal arrangement.  But I didn’t buy their books because they are both based on personal experience. Not worth it for my purposes here.

Crafting the Style & Tone of a White Paper

The sources I consulted say relatively little about this aspect of writing white papers. Perhaps with the exception of crafting the title. Both Stelzner and Graham emphasize the importance of the title for enticing readers: Graham’s list includes

  • state business benefits (make or save money, save labor, streamline processes, increase productivity, etc.)
  • name target readers (for CFOs, IT Executives, etc.)
  • use active verbs or “how to”
  • state as a question
  • use a numbered list
  • omit jargon
  • omit product names

Beyond the title, Graham mentions the importance of following any existing style guides used by the company sponsoring the white paper. In general, sources mention choosing vocabulary appropriate to the target audience. So avoiding jargon, including acronyms, is discussed. Stelzner warns against the use of humor as it doesn’t fit the educational tone expected by white paper readers.  Graham mentions the importance of a tone with you-perspective.

Final Thoughts

The sources I located provide some decent information about developing content for white papers. I should note that several agree the right length for a white paper is between 5 and 12 pages. The quality and quantity of help offered for organizing that information is lacking. And we don’t have data-based evidence for making style and tone recommendations either. To develop that guidance, I’ll repeat what I said a couple of months back: we need at least one study of rhetorical move structure for a sample of successful white papers. My colleague and I are on it. Stay tuned . . .

Further Reading

R.W. Bly (2010). Writing White Papers for Fun and Profit: How to Get these “Plum Assignments” that Blend Elements of Articles and Brochures. The Writer, Mar., p. 38.

G. Graham (2014). The White Paper FAQ. That White Paper Guy website.

C. McPherson (2010). Examining the Gap Between Workplace White Papers and Their Representation in Technical Communication Textbooks. Doctoral Dissertation. Texas Tech University.

M.A. Stelzner (2007). White Paper Writer Industry Report: Trends, Pricing and Standards for White Paper Writers (2nd edition). WhitePaperSource Publishing.

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

Cut your email into three chunks for better digestion

Photo Credit: 27147 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: 27147 via Compfight cc

Travis, a former student who now works as an IT consultant, asked for a summary of what we taught him about developing and organizing content in emails ’cause he wants to share it with his project leaders. (Seems they had asked him how he knew what the majority of new grads don’t.)  Although I’ve written here about email requests and different aspects of organizing content, I couldn’t find a single post to meet his needs.  So I whipped up this one.

Let me start by showing you an announcement I recently received at work. It was NOT easy to digest.

This message was a blob I couldn’t begin to swallow. I mean I could read the words. It had well-formed sentences. It had three short paragraphs. But I had no clue what it meant. Because it was sent by a top administrator, I felt some obligation to figure it out. I actually read the entire message. And I talked to fellow employees. No one had a clue. Most had simply trashed the message without reading more than the first few words.

Note the problem isn’t one of brevity. The announcement was brief.

Here’s a revised version of the announcement I’ll use to describe the three chunks needed to help your readers digest an email easily.

Chunk #1: State your bottom line message clearly as an obligatory appetizer.

The bottom line message in the revised version of the announcement is stated early. And twice.

  1. Subject line: Directions for Office of Internal Audit Requests for All University Employees
  2. First sentence: I want to clarify the role of the University’s Office of Internal Audit on our campus and direct all University employees to cooperate with their staff fully.

The first chunk of your email must establish your purpose in communicating with your readers. Stating it clearly requires that you can actually verbalize it before you hit the send button. The critical problem with the original announcement was that it did not explicitly state the bottom line message. There was a required chunk of information missing entirely!

Stating the bottom line in the first chunk of your email requires you to take responsibility for making the message easier for your readers to digest. Even if the writer had included a bottom line message at the end of the original announcement, it would have created indigestion. Believe it or not, there are few situations when a delay in stating your bottom line is warranted.  (See the video tutorial on placement of the bottom line for more help.)

Chunk #2: Provide details or other information supporting your bottom line as the main course.

The details in the revised announcement are nearly identical in content to the original. The details about cooperation for all employees appear in one paragraph. The details about cooperation for all managers appear in a separate paragraph. The content here is brief. But you can provide a load of detail in the second chunk of your email if you make it easy for readers to skim and scan. (See the video tutorial on format for help.) The more complex the second chunk is, the more important it is to provide a wrap-up, further analysis, justification, or something else to tie the details together.

In the revised announcement, I also altered the writer’s style from the original to make it more personal. I couldn’t stop myself.

  • Original bureaucratic tone: University personnel are expected to collaborate with the Office of Internal Audit during an audit review.
  • Revised personal tone: As a University employee, you are expected to collaborate with the Office of Internal Audit during an audit review.

That personal tone is more likely to succeed if you want readers to interpret what you have to say as directions. (See the video tutorial on tone for more on this topic.)

Chunk #3: Include a call to action for dessert.

Readers of the original announcement received nothing after their main course. Readers of the revised email received just a little something as the third chunk of the writer’s message.  Call it lagniappe. They were thanked. And they were told where to go if they had questions.

This chunk isn’t strictly necessary in a downward message like the announcement email (where the writer has more power relative to the readers). But it makes sense to create goodwill that may help you get readers to pay attention to what you say in the future. After all, the language you use with subordinates determines whether they will follow you.

The original announcement was not easily digested because it used three paragraphs, but not the three-chunk format. Thanks to Travis for requesting this summary guidance for writing emails. We’re delighted he’s not the cause of indigestion in his workplace . . . Oh, how we LOVE confirmation that we’re teaching the right stuff!

Research Support

If you’re interested in the research that backs up our guidance, you could start with the following.

Fielden, J.S. & Dulek, R.E. (1984). How to use bottom-line writing in corporate communications. Business Horizons, July-August, pp. 25-30.

Evans, S. (2012). Designing email tasks for the Business English classroom: Implications from a study of Hong Kong’s key industries. English for Specific Purposes, 31, pp. 202-212.