Skills in Planning: Writing Content-Free Planning Documents

<p class="MsoNormal"> 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. </p> <p class="MsoNormal"> <em>Titles </em> </p> <p class="MsoNormal"> Titles should never reveal the actual content of the report. This is the guideline I find easiest to follow myself. </p>

May 26, 2009, 9:02 AM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell.

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