Posted on: March 19, 2021
Writing reports, plans and staff memos is not much fun. It's dutiful, serious writing-not an opportunity for wit and levity. Trying to convey authority can strangle the human voice, and it's easy, even reassuring, to slip into bureaucratic language.
This article takes knowledge from Claudia Kousoulas’ book Writing for Planners providing 9 useful hints and tips to help you get organised before you sit down to write your professional reports.
Embrace planning theory
Planning in a broad field. You may have studied it in Architecture schools or a school for public policy and government, or in a landscape or environmental programme. Each will guide you to your speciality and help you develop expertise in the concepts, tools and norms of the profession. Planning touches on how we live, how we move and what we invest in. Expanding your reach into other areas such as a local library board, environmental group, historic society or school PTA will give you a chance to refine your skills in research, argument and presentation.
Adapt your planning practice
Time = Change. Be prepared to adapt your ways of working as new policies and technologies seek to knock you off your feet. Actively educate yourself and keep up to date with any changes, and step up to help create and implement recommendations or develop new style guides and standards. Remember, there is no single solution; you have to adapt your expertise in planning theory and use it to shape how you approach an issue, frame a problem and work towards a solution.
Understand your community
At the most basic level, a Planner should learn their community's shape, and this should be reflected in your writing. It's important to understand demographics and the development and planning history and work at the level of the communities capacity in order to be effective.
Know your topic
Keeping afloat of any changes to your specialist area. You'll want to be able to instantly pull facts on current issues and relationships but also on the area's planning history. Nothing in planning gets accomplished by one person. You have to know the political and policy landscape. You can write an entire master plan, but it has no relevance until the community and implementers are made part of it.
Do your research (not just at your desk!)
Online research and pictures only give you a glimpse of your landscape. Before sitting down to write, get up from your desk, step away from your screen and leave the office. There is always something observed in the field that isn't captured in online street view or within an application, something which may have a profound effect on those within the local community. Take the time to walk the site, observing the location at different times of the day and week, and don't forget to speak to people using, visiting and residing within the location.
Know the context
It may seem self-explanatory but writing is increasingly easier if you know why you are doing it, and I don't know mean just that it's an assignment. By knowing what you're aiming for and the result you want from the reader, this will make it easier to focus the message and choose relevant details to support it. You also need to understand the format in which it will be presented, this will affect the size, detail and language of your copy. Here’s some examples and a few things to consider:
- Staff report: focus on the decision to be made, and don't ask the reader to slog through obvious information, like the law that gives standing to make the decision or irrelevant information like the history of other decisions
- Press release: give the journalist the who-what-when-where-how and a few good quotes
- Blog posts: write an attention-grabbing headline, a summary first paragraph that makes a reader click through, and include a bright bold picture
- Fact sheet: provide what is relevant to the place and project and explain why those facts are relevant. Also provide your sources
- Technical report: put the facts in context, don't just provide numbers, show that they are high or low and what impacts they'll have. And explain technical terms
- Master plan: focus on making long-term, abstract ideas real and feasible
Define your audience
Not everyone is interested in a plan, but those who are, really are. Consider who your audience is and what they might want. Remember, the challenge is not to tell what you know, it' s about what your reader knows or most likely doesn't know, and what action you want them to take. Planners will never have a single audience. In fact, a plan lacks validity if it hasn't addressed all the stakeholders. But for every audience, it's important to present a clear story, supported with relevant facts, and presented in varied outlets.
Don't overthink it
Just treat it like another business task. Yes it's tedious and you will make mistakes but that's just part of work. Don't let this get you down, this is the same for everyone; just remember that all mistakes are a learning curve.
Take pride in your authorship. Put your work out there to your colleagues and audience. Allow them to engage with it and provide feedback. Don’t take their comments personally, this is business. Be confident in your work, be active in shaping and refining ideas. Dive in head first with questions:
- What's the main point?
- To educate, influence, generate support or gain approval?
- What do readers need to know?
- Who and what are relevant?
- What details shouldn't be overlooked?
- Who should you talk to?
- What's the point you are trying to make and the place you want to get to?
Writing (and reading) are such an essential part of our everyday working lives. With these helpful tips, you can turn any written document into an engageing and thought-provoking piece of content. This article showcases only a few of the many tips and tricks out their to support your writing and communication. To find out more, check out Claudia Kousoulas' Writing for Planners.
A Handbook for Students and Professionals in Writing, Editing, and Document Production, 1st Edition
This book will help planners meet the challenges of creating work that is accurate, creative, and useful. Students will find it helpful in providing professional standards and quick reference information, and professionals will carry it through their careers as a reference, and as a way to establish workplace standards and improve their own work.