Skills in Planning: Writing Content-Free Planning Documents

Ann Forsyth's picture
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For many students graduate school is the time to learn how to write professional reports and memos. One of the skills many planning students seem eager to master is writing the content-free document. This kind of writing is a little tricky to do. Accordingly, in this last blog in my series on planning skills I provide tips on how to create sentences, paragraphs, and whole reports and PowerPoint presentations that convey the absolute minimum of important information.

Titles

Titles should never reveal the actual content of the report. This is the guideline I find easiest to follow myself.

  • For example, the title "Crypt(ic): A Planning Report" is an excellent title for a report on cemetery redesign. You will separate out those who have read the report before and had the title explained from those who are new to it and will find it unintelligible.
  • Less imaginative perhaps, but still content-free, are variations on "Neighborhood Master Plan" or "Corridor Planning Study". This kind of title ensures the reader needs to delve further in order to figure out the location and also means that many people will not find the report in internet searches using specific key words like "Manhattan" or Mumbai". The report that can't be found and thus won't be read is the perfect type of content-free report.

Introductions

The introductory paragraph, or better yet the introductory pages, are crucial in the content-free report.

  • Fill these introductory pages with background about the general place and overall topic. Never ever state your key questions earlier than page 10.
  • Make the reader wait until the very end of your report, on page 357, for what your study found.

Overviews

  • When you provide an overview of your report clearly state it in generalities, not specifics. That is say "this report starts with an overview of the topic, outlines the methods, presents analysis of data, and provides conclusions." The content-free report would never, ever be as clear as "In exploring how expanding tourist facilities will affect the urban design of Mytown, we first examine three other similar locations matched for size and demographics (Theirtown, Otherville, and Yourcity). We compared these places with Mytown. We also undertook visual analyses, prepared build-out studies, and assessed how open spaces were used. We find that if current ordinances remain there may be problems associated with increased strip development and decreased usable outdoor space, particularly for children living in apartments. The report proposes three changes to zoning regulations and urban design guidelines to improve the function and aesthetics of shopping centers, particularly for pedestrians. These changes also aim to provide age-appropriate play opportunities for children without private yards." This second version, in revealing all up front, makes it far too easy for the reader to understand the report!
  • For a PowerPoint presentation it is even easier. I have noticed that many people wisely use the same template for every presentation, saving a great deal of time:

1. Introduction

2. Methods and data

3. Analysis

4. Conclusions

5. Lessons for practice

Better yet, are those who start their presentations by reading this outline word for word. They have managed to use up at least 37 seconds without providing any specific content.

Other

With a content-free title, introduction, and overview, it is typically simple enough to continue in the same mode, ensuring you are as non-specific as possible. The following tips can help you achieve this:

  • If you present data, do it only for the area being studied. Never compare to a larger or matched area.
  • If you present case studies of other locations or programs, don't explain why you chose them. Report them in different levels of detail.
  • Similarly, choose one or two obscure academic studies to back up your arguments-provide some long quotes and don't link them to your report. Never explain why they are particularly strong or pertinent studies. Do not explain their conceptual frameworks, methods, and data. For the rest of the paper don't cite sources at all-leave the reader uncertain about how and where you found the information and whether to believe you. This will help them dismiss much of the content you do supply. If you absolutely have to cite a source use only those on the internet, particularly Wikipedia or ask.com. Make sure your readers can clearly see that you didn't need to leave your computer, or even enter a library web site, to complete this report. By combining these strategies you will minimize content that is accurate and relevant and thus attain your goal of a virtually content-free document.
  • Conclude that "future research is needed and policy change is difficult." Such conclusions never go out of style.

I hope that readers recognize this as a spoof. While I am not overly prone to writing content-free reports, I do have a tendency to create content-free titles that I now regret. For my actual instructions about writing go to http://www.annforsyth.net/forstudents.html and scroll down to the bottom. My writing instructions are linked to "Essential Information." A new (May) version will be uploaded in early June. Thanks to Erica Gutierrez and Emily Bergeron who gave very helpful comments on this entry.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.
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Comments

Comments

It took me WAY too long...

...to figure out this was satire. Nicely done.

Jess Zimbabwe's picture
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I had somehow inserted "opinion-free" in place of "content-free"

...in my head, so I also was a couple paragraphs in before I realized what was going on.

I'd say that this was great work, Ann, but really, more research is needed before such a conclusion could be drawn.

Jess Zimbabwe, Executive Director
ULI Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use

Too funny,

As an incoming Cornell grad student I've been hanging on your advice, (perhaps a little too much) thanks for the diversion. I love "Crypt(ic): A Planning Report."

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