The Long and Short of Writing

Ann Forsyth's picture
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Study after study highlights writing as a major skill that planning employers are looking for in new hires. Two specific kinds of writing seem most challenging to beginning planners.

First, is the short memo, letter, or executive summary of a page or two. Busy decision-makers don't have a lot of time. It's essential to be able to convey information to them in a clear and succinct format. Spend time learning how to use key phrases, content rich subheadings, bullets, short tables, and charts to convey information to audiences who are overloaded with information.

The second challenging type of writing is the longer report. I am often surprised that students can get most of the way though graduate school without ever having written a document of 40 or more pages. Such writing requires a number of skills. These include:

  • Knowing how to structure a longer argument so it flows well.
  • Understanding how to convey the main question and findings in the first page or two and then back that up with evidence in the rest of the paper.
  • Knowing how to use headings, short summaries, lead sentences, and recommendations so that the reader is kept aware of the big picture and can clearly identify the main findings. 
  • Developing a sense of when to use narrative and when to convey information through maps, charts, tables, and figures.
  • Being able to keep track of sources so you and others can recheck facts and interpretations.
  • Knowing how to use a consistent style from the start so you don't face a huge copy-editing task at the end.
  • Having enough familiarity with a word processing program to automate a number of tasks such as formatting headings and generating tables of contents.

Many planning programs now offer classes in writing. Most programs without a specific class in writing offer classes where writing is emphasized--seek these out and take some of them. You can also take advantage of a number of online resources. For example, Purdue has a useful site explaining how to write a memo. And be sure you develop skills in both shorter and longer formats.

I have previously provided more general advice about writing papers and reports and about how not to write.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.
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