Everything You Need To Know About Excellent Writing As Taught By Matryoshka Dolls

Posted October 18, 2016 By Anne Dougherty

As part of our third-year ILLUME retreat, I led a session on storytelling and writing. We know that our clients want more accessible, shareable, and actionable reporting. However, actually putting our value for great reporting into practice requires a commitment to clarity and careful attention to detail. Here are a few of the tips I shared with the team. I hope you find them useful! AIso, keep an eye out for a few upcoming reports where we use magazine formats and videos to tell the story in our research!

  1. Use the Matryoshka doll principle. All reports should have no more than three main points. Beneath each main point, state your key findings. Sub-points and data can be nested under those. Arranging your work by answers rather than “research objectives” makes reports more accessible to a broader audience. One good tip to get you started is to think through your points and map them out before you begin writing.
  1. Organize your points using a governing logic that readers can easily understand. For example, if a program has a temporal logic, follow that logic in your writing (e.g. if participants have to sign up for a program in order to receive a rebate, discuss the sign-up process before you discuss rebate fulfillment).
  1. Ruthlessly delete “autobiographical writing”. What I mean by “autobiographical writing” is when you  force a reader to “discover” your findings with you. If you are one of those people who write to think (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) you have to rewrite to communicate. Otherwise, you’ll have a very frustrated reader.
  1. Point first. Always. Yes, I know. It feels so much more sophisticated to weave together findings and build to a slow reveal. But in reality, your reader is looking absorb information quickly and efficiently. Don’t make them work for it.
  1. Everything you include should contribute to your argument. The first sentence of every paragraph should support your over-arching point. Every chart should stand alone. A quick rule of thumb is to remove everything but the first sentences and the charts. Check to see if a reader would be able to understand your results with simply that information.
  1. Make a list of report vocabulary and stick to it throughout. For example, if you begin by calling HVAC market actors installers, continue to refer to them as installers throughout. Switching terms can confuse your reader.
  2. Keep your nouns and verbs together. They should be like peas in a pod. Peanut butter and jelly. If a sentence is confusing, nine times out of ten it is because there are too many words between your noun and your verb. There may be multiple nouns and verbs in a sentence, however, the two that make your point should be inseparable. For example, which of the two sentences below is easier to read? I’ve underlined the primary noun and verb:
  • Sally, a precocious albeit overly enthusiastic purveyor of fossilized sea fauna, offers her collection for perusal and a small fee where the tide and sand meet.
  • Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore.
  1. It is okay to be direct. Embrace direct language. Learn to love the short sentence. It is important that you get comfortable making a point – and getting to the point – in your writing.

This list was so much fun, wasn’t it? I think so.