Prepare notes for your e‑mail, memo, letter, or report

Avoid just writing. It's inefficient and wastes time.

Public schools teach people to just write without thinking about the writing before starting. "Write about what you did last summer," the students are told. The teacher should instead say,

"You're writing a letter to someone to help that person experience what you experienced during some event last summer. Plan the writing by deciding what you would write that will help him or her understand and feel the experience. Write an outline of what you will include. Then write the description."

Because teachers probably haven't taught you to plan before you write, you likely have the impulse to just start writing. That's inefficient and time consuming. You end up having to go back and reorganize after you've written. Most writers can't do that very well. They want to include everything they've written; they've lost perspective because they wrote it as they thought and all the words in front of them block their view of the overall ideas.

Just writing without planning also creates writer's block. If you find that you can't decide how to start e‑mails, memos, letters, or reports, it's probably because you don't have the plan yet. The reason is that your thinking is in webs, not straight lines. At each point in the web, your mind could go several directions because you understand the entire subject. However, the reader doesn't have the web in his or her mind yet. To communicate to readers, you must translate the web into individual straight lines. If you just write, your mind sees the web and doesn't know where to start.

Planning before you write helps you decide which lines to explain and where to explain them. As you explain the individual lines of the web, the reader will start to see the web in his or her mind. You'll find it easier to start writing because you know which lines to explain first and in what order to present the rest of them.

Learn to plan the writing first. Write brief notes. Then add details. This section of the training shows you how to do that.


Select information that will accomplish your goals.

To accomplish your goals, you must communicate facts, concepts, and procedures. If you communicate the wrong information, you may be very successful in helping the reader understand your points, but fail when the reader doesn't have what he or she needs to achieve your goals.

The information you select can also fail to accomplish your goals if you include unnecessary information or insufficient information. Too much information will frustrate the reader so he or she may not even finish the message. Readers will learn that anything from you will be full of useless detail and won't be worth reading. Your messages will end up in the low-priority pile.

Include too little and your reader won't understand what you're trying to say or won't be able to act as you want him or her to. You and the reader will both end up frustrated because of the miscommunication.

Select the information to include very carefully. Include the minimum amount of information and all the information the reader must have to achieve your goals.


Step 1: Write the central idea or central ideas in a word or few words apiece.

If you have one central idea, state it in a word or a few words.

Resist adding detail. The words you use are key words. That means they should appear throughout your explanations of the central ideas. They will hold the explanations together.

You'll also use these words to guide the reader through your explanation. They'll appear in the headings you use and opening statements. Choose them carefully.

Bold these central ideas so you keep them separate from the sub-ideas you insert in the next step.

If you have more than one central idea, write each in a word or few words.

Separate the central ideas with white space. Number them if they are in an order, such as steps or order of importance.

In your e‑mail, memo, letter, or report, think of each section that explains the central idea using the word(s) you've chosen here. This is the "meeting agenda" section. This is the "reasons we should select XYZ company" section. That will help you focus your explanations later.


Imagine you're preparing an e‑mail for a team whose role is to advise upper-level management about changes that might be needed in the work environment. The e‑mail will explain two topics: information about the next meeting and problems employees have encountered with the new scheduling software.

You would write these two central ideas as you started to think through what will be in the e‑mail:



Words representing concepts are referred to in this course as "key terms." Throughout this course, words that represent concepts important to the document are referred to as "key terms." A key term is any combination of words you use to identify the concept in your mind.


The key terms are bolded in the sentences that follow. Each key term represents a concept:

This report explains our rationale for purchasing new assembly equipment.

We discovered that the division losses were due to accounting errors.

The words presented on the previous page as the central ideas for an e‑mail are the key terms for the concepts:



As you can see, often the key terms contain several words or an entire phrase. The key term should include all the words that will identify the concept explicitly for you and the reader. Instead of referring to them as "key words or key phrases," this book simply refers to all the words that identify a concept clearly in your mind as a "key term."

Readers will find your consistent use of key terms very helpful as you use the terms to help them navigate through your explanations.


Step 2: Write the sub-ideas in a word or few words apiece.

Follow the same procedure to write a word or few words apiece for each sub-idea. Start with the first central idea. Skip a blank line under it and write a word or few words to describe the first sub-idea you need to explain for the reader to understand the information and accomplish your goals. You might underline these if you plan to have sub-sub ideas that explain the sub-ideas.

Here, also, resist adding details. Write a word or few words for each sub-idea. Choose these words carefully. They are key words that you will use later in headings and opening statements. They will help you as you guide the reader through your explanation.

Then start to think of the sub-sections using these key words. This is the "business reports" sub-section that is under the "meeting agenda" central idea.


For example, imagine the central idea for a document is "three changes in the billing system." That central idea might have three main points, one for each change in the billing system:

  1. Improving the dunning letters
  2. Using a new invoice form
  3. Beginning a new method of tracking payments

The three main points are called Level 1 points because they are at the highest level; they explain the central idea.

Follow this procedure to write the key term for each Level 1 point that explains the central idea. If the document has more than one central idea, repeat this process for each central idea. Write as many words as you need to identify the point explicitly, but no more. Resist writing sentences you feel you need to edit.

  1. Skip a line under the central point key term and write a word or a few words describing the first Level 1 point the reader will need to understand to accomplish your business objectives. These words comprise the first Level 1 point key term.

  2. Below that first Level 1 point key term, write key terms for the other Level 1 points you know the reader must understand, placing each one on its own line.

  3. Place a number 1 before each Level 1 point key term. Every Level 1 point must be separate from every other. In other words, you shouldn't have a Level 1 point that explains another Level 1 point.

These are the notes for a document using the illustration of levels presented in the previous example. The writer has chosen not to capitalize the Level 1 point key terms.


1 improving dunning letters

1 using new invoice forms

1 using a new method for tracking payments


Resist adding detail.

Keep working with the key words until you have the overall structure together. When you write details, the "overall picture" step ends and it's more difficult to see an overview of your message. When you start to write details, you lose sight of the forest because you have your nose buried in the bark of individual trees.


These are the notes someone might write for the report about the three changes in billing procedures referred to in a previous example. The numbers to the left of the key terms show the levels. The writer has capitalized the Level 1 key terms to keep them separate from lower level key terms.

This writer has chosen to put the key terms into longer phrases, with some forming sentences. However, she has resisted trying to edit them to make them perfect sentences.

The important parts of the key terms are the words that represent concepts, such as "improve dunning letters" and "opportunities to pay over time." Words such as "offering," "by which," and "with" just make the meaning of the key terms clear for the writer as she prepares her notes. When she writes later, she will keep the important words in the key term words and drop or change the unimportant words.



2 Offering opportunities to pay over time
2 Extending the time by which payments must be made
2 Listing a local collection agency with a local address

3 Customers respond better to local agencies
3 We identified local agencies in twenty cities
3 Their names will appear on dunning letters


2 Explaining the taxes more clearly
2 Including our telephone payment number



Step 3: Evaluate the information to be sure you have enough for the reader to fulfill your goals.

After you have all the central ideas and sub-ideas, evaluate whether you have enough for the reader to fulfill your goals. Write for the person who needs the most explanation, not the one who needs the least. The information will accomplish your goals with the reader only if all the information the reader needs is there.


Step 4: Evaluate the information to be sure you have no unnecessary details.

Finally, evaluate the information you’ve included to be sure you have no unnecessary details. You may think some details are interesting or provide background that you believe is valuable, but if the information does not directly help the reader accomplish your goals in this document, leave it out. Unnecessary information just bogs the reader down.


Mind Mapping

One very popular method of gathering your thoughts and putting them on paper is called "mind mapping." In it, you create a map of your thoughts about the subject of the document.

In addition to helping you develop your thoughts before writing, mind mapping will overcome writer's block. You are able to start putting thoughts on paper immediately, without having to think about how to organize or write them. That makes it easier to get down to the writing.

To learn more about mind mapping, click here.



Following this process of jotting down notes using key words, organizing them, and evaluating whether you have enough or too much information will ensure that you're providing everything the reader needs. It is an important step before you start to write.



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