Are you formatted correctly?

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Have you ever watched a film or tv show and noticed that the vase of roses in the background has switched to tulips and back again or similar? Continuity mistakes are annoying, and you can’t believe that someone hasn’t spotted them before it makes it to the big screen. When mistakes happen, people can’t help but feel smug when they are able to point them out to you. There are websites and articles dedicated to pointing out ones spotted in movies.

One of the reasons I think mistakes manage to slip through is the sheer number of people involved in one movie. When you have lots of people, all working on their individual parts, sometimes the complete product can be neglected.

The same is true with professional reports. You may have eight people all contributing to a report. Each one may be looking at a different aspect of the dispute. Each person may have a different level of writing skills or their own unique style.

The complete report is then compiled together under the name of the lead author. It is only when reading the whole thing together that the issues become apparent. The report can feel disjointed and become difficult for a reader to engage with.

What can you do to solve the problem?

Firstly, agree on a standard style guide. No there is no need to create this yourself. A document like this often takes a lot of hard work to prepare. It’s circulated round the office and everyone agrees it’s a good idea, only for it to sit in a file never to be looked at again.

So use someone else’s!

There are a number of style guides out there. The Guardian, Telegraph and the BBC all have useful guides. Take a look at these and decide on one which fits the style of your business. Then when a question arises you can refer back and decide the best way to proceed.

If you see the same issues crop up time and time again, agree on a decided formula and stick to it. Easy wins on this front are things like date format, capitalisation, acronyms and American vs. English spellings.

Finally, where possible, ask someone with less technical experience to read through the report for you. No matter your level of writing skill, when you’ve spent hours and hours on a document you begin to miss the finer details in lieu of the bigger picture. The human brain is trained to make sense from nonsense. If you already know what something is meant to say, your brain will skip over mistakes.

Using a lay-reader gives you the advantage of making sure your technical viewpoint is understandable to the less informed. Never forget that this is the sole purpose of your reports. Whilst a tribunal will probably have a decent level of knowledge on the subject matter, you are appointed to fill the gaps in that knowledge. Over complicating your report can mean your key points are unclear.

Strike a balance of showcasing your technical knowledge, without filling the report with industry jargon or pompous statements. Verbosity is the enemy. If you can state something in fewer words, do so. Overcomplicated sentences rarely make you look clever. In fact, it often screams of insecurity in your own skills. At Limeslade we tend to use the ‘Hemingway app‘, which gives a very quick view on some basic grammatical issues such as complex sentences.

The style of writing should also change according to the audience. You should get used to changing your voice depending on which hat you are wearing. We have to do the same thing each time we switch between clients. A blog piece like this one, an article on a technical subject, a brochure or a technical report should all have distinct styles.

Along with marketing and business development, I’ve spent the last few years of my career proofing reports before they are sent to the client or tribunal. One of the best tips I can give is to agree on the stylisation at the start. Whether that be in the formatting or the grammatical style. Teams which do so, produce much smarter reports which merge together seamlessly.

Also, try to use a single template and make use of Microsoft’s (we’ll assume you’re using Word) built-in styles. Using ‘heading 1’, ‘heading 2’, etc ensures consistency. When you go to insert numbers and tables of contents, the document will stay consistent. A significant problem we’ve seen arises where people use their own document / styles and then paste them into the main report. Chaos ensues!

In the long run, like everything, an extra few minutes in the planning stages can save hours when it comes to getting the report ready to issue. That time saved can be better used working on the technical information it contains. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been stuck late into the night tidying up a report that whilst technically brilliant, it a mess in terms of grammar and style.

In summary then:

  • Agree on a common style
  • Use standardised formatting for dates, pagination, etc
  • Adopt one of the publicly available style guides
  • Use a proof reader (preferably a lay-person)
  • Use something like the Hemingway app to give an overview of complexity
  • Remember to adopt the right tone in your writing
  • Use Microsoft’s standard style system
  • Plan and prepare before you launch into something

If this is a problem you seem to come up against a lot, why not get in touch to see if we can help you. With our writing skills, we may be able to help you put a style guide together or go about implementing changes to improve the readability of reports. With our years of experience in the industry, we also have the technical knowledge to understand the output of the report. We can help with proofing and tidying reports.

annie@limesladeconsulting.co.uk