I’ve talked in previous toolkit posts about getting a focus for your writing and using tools like the SmartArt tool in Microsoft Word to figure out a layout or map of the topics and sub-topics you’ll cover in your writing of a report or section of a report (e.g., methodology). In this post I talk about how to use this focus and map to spell out clearly for readers where they’re being taken by your report and, perhaps more importantly, what they should take away from reading it.
You may have heard the term ‘shifting goalposts’. It’s used to describe situations where ‘goals’ or outcomes change, seemingly at random. For example, the outcomes expected of you by your employer were clear last week and then they unexpectedly change and this week’s expectations are quite different (and possibly different in a way that means you’ll ‘fail’ in your work). Your employer can be described as shifting the goalposts for your work. When I apply this term to report writing I want to encourage you to provide readers with information about the format and focus of your writing. This way they won’t be left with a feeling that they started out going somewhere but ended up being taken to some place else by your writing (because you’ve inadvertently shifted the goalposts).
One way to set out clear goalposts is in your abstract. In part 4 of the toolkit I encouraged you to complete your abstract before you begin writing the body of your report. The discipline of doing this and then referring back to it when writing can gain you the focus you need. This isn’t to say that the abstract can’t change as you’re writing your report. There may be situations when the further you get into your report the more you realise that the abstract just isn’t as closely aligned to what you want to say as you first thought. If this happens then there’s no reason why you can’t pause and refocus your abstract and then move forward in your report writing with a refreshed focus. The important thing here is that when someone reads your abstract they get an accurate and concise indication of what you’re going to be saying, as this insight into how you’re thinking is their first guide to reading your report.
In the body of your report you can spell out for readers what topics you’ll be covering and perhaps why these topics have been included. In part 5 of the toolkit I presented an overview of the topics I’d include in the Introduction of a report on research with Māori health providers about their health care delivery models. Based on this I’d include a brief overview at the beginning of the Introduction of what’s going to be covered, so that readers know what’s coming up.
This Introduction contains two main sections. In the first the Health Practitioners Competency Act (HPCA) 2003 is described, with particular attention paid to the sections in the Act on clinical and cultural competencies. In the second section Māori health is examined, beginning with an overview of health care disparities experienced by Māori and how barriers at several points along their health care journey disrupt Māori access to health care. Māori models of health are presented and their implications for cultural competency explored. Finally, the present research is described along with an overview of this report.1
At the end of each main section you may also like to provide a summary paragraph where you remind readers of what’s been covered in the section they’ve just read and then ties this content to the following section. In this way readers get a brief version of the ‘take home messages’ you want them to get from any particular section, as well as a bridge between sections.
In summary, the clinical competencies expected of health practitioners are well spelt out in the HPCA. The cultural competencies, however, are not. Furthermore it is unclear whether a health practitioner who is culturally inept can still achieve clinical competence given that the dual competencies are closely intertwined. In the next section, cultural incompetence is presented as a key determinant of Māori health disparities and a barrier to Māori access to health care.1
Writing these types of summary sections is also a good ‘test’ of whether the content in any section hangs together coherently. Just as you can revisit the abstract and rewrite it so it focuses more clearly on the content of your report, you can also revisit the content map you made. This is why I like using SmartArt because it’s easy to shift topics and sub-topics around and revise the map when you get new insight into how to best order and present the content of your report. I might do this 3-4 times when I’m writing a report or a paper until I’m happy with the sequence of what I’m writing. (In the meantime, writing in discreet sections to begin with means that little of what I write is wasted in this re-ordering.)
Remember that for writing tools to be useful, they have to help you in your writing and be able to be revised when you gain more clarity about what you want to say. You can then use these same tools as prompts to explain to readers what it is they’ll be reading about, what content they’ll find and in what order, what take home messages are important, and how sections tie together. If you can get the ‘goalposts’ clear in your head, then you’ll explain them more clearly to readers who will, in turn, be able to follow the order of your reporting with more ease.
Contributed by Fiona Cram
Note. 1. Written examples are for illustration purposes only. They are not from an actual report.