Open each block with a statement of the contents

The importance of opening blocks

To be meaningful to readers and listeners, your messages must have beginnings and endings. You begin an e‑mail, present the message, and end it. You begin a sentence within a report, present the words, and end it. More important, within the message you begin an explanation, explain, and end the explanation.

Distinct beginnings and endings are especially important in longer e‑mails, memos, letters, or reports containing several ideas or steps. For readers to be able to follow you, they must know when you want them to open up an idea in their minds, pay attention to the explanation, and close the idea so you can go on to another idea. They store each idea in a compartment in their minds with other similar ideas. When you don't open each new idea, they don't know where to store it. When you don't close each idea before moving to a new one, they keep trying to put subsequent ideas into the same compartment with the previous, which may create confusion and frustration.

Openings and closings are critical to clear business writing. The clearest business writing tells the reader every time the writer is opening a new idea and when the writer is closing the idea. The reader should not have to read several sentences to figure out what you are talking about, as in this example:

I have one last fact that will be of interest to you. The marketing department will provide each sales representative with a fresh supply of supporting materials to help you see those policies roll-in. The marketing materials and stationery have been sent to all regional offices to be ready for use in sales and should arrive in a week or so. With them are the materials for the new health insurance, so when the supporting materials are in the regional offices, you can finally begin to sell the new insurance.

As written, the message seems to be saying that the fact of interest to the reader is that the marketing department will provide each sales rep with a fresh supply of supporting materials. That's not what the writer meant, but the reader has to finish the entire paragraph to discover that the fact of interest to him or her is that the rep can start to sell the new insurance.

Now read the same announcement rewritten with an opening.

I am pleased to announce that you can finally begin to sell the new insurance. The marketing department will provide each sales representative with a fresh supply of supporting materials to help you see those policies roll-in. The marketing materials and stationery have been sent to all regional offices to be ready for use in sales and should arrive in a week or so. With them are the materials for the new health insurance, so when the supporting materials are in the regional offices, you can finally begin to sell the new insurance.

Nearly always open with a statement of the central point; then follow with your support or explanation. State explicitly each change in content. The reader must know what is coming next before it comes. Readers should not have to read beyond the text that follows a sentence to understand what the sentence means or how it fits with the rest of your explanation.

 

How openings and closings make writing clearer

Read the following e‑mail. It has no openings and closings.

Employees will suffer because they do not have the income they had when they were employed. Even though the company laid them off due to faults within the company, some people may take it as a personal rejection. They may think that the boss was not satisfied with the work they were producing. Some friends of the laid-off employees who work at that same company may not have been part of the layoff. Sometimes, the people who are laid off have been at that job for several years. It is hard for them to try to enter the work force again. The process of looking for a job is new to them, putting them at a disadvantage. Companies would rather hire a younger person who has the potential of staying with the company into the future instead of an older individual who is closer to retirement age.

The writer begins without opening the message. The reader doesn't know what concepts in his or her mind to open. There is no statement of the subject.

The first concept is apparently "Employees will suffer because they do not have the income they had when they were employed." OK, let's assume that's the message of the e‑mail. The writer hasn't opened the concept, but that sentence is the first of the e‑mail.

When the reader finishes the next sentence, he or she will try to fit the content of that sentence with the first concept because the first concept was not closed. The reader will be trying to understand how suffering because of a lack of income fits with taking the layoff as a rejection. They don't fit together, so the reader may become confused and frustrated. Not opening the ideas is the first reason the paragraph is difficult to read.

Another reason the paragraph is confusing is that the writer doesn't use white space to signal openings and closings. We learned very early in school that when we see a blank line in text, the idea being presented is changing. The block of text between the blank lines is called a paragraph. This writer uses no blank space to signal openings and closings, making the writing even more difficult to understand.

Throughout every message you write, the reader is continually trying to understand three things:

  1. What is the idea you are opening?

  2. How does this new idea fit with previous ideas?

  3. When have you closed the idea so the reader can move on to a new idea?

The confusing paragraph above would look very different if the writer opened each new idea with a little introduction and put in spaces to signal openings and closings:

The first problem with downsizing is that the employees who are laid off will suffer. Employees will suffer because they lose the income they had when they were employed. They may also suffer psychologically. Even though the company laid them off due to faults within the company, some employees may see their layoff as a personal rejection. They may think that the company was not satisfied with their work.

The layoff affects those who are not laid off as well as those let go. Friends of the laid-off employees working at that same company may not have been let go. The layoff may create hostility among them.

Another effect of a layoff is that some people will not be able to find other employment. Sometimes, the people who were laid off have been with the company for several years. It is difficult for them to enter the work force again. The process of looking for a job is new to them, putting them at a disadvantage. Companies would rather hire a younger person who has the potential of staying with the company into the future than an older person who is closer to retirement age.

Never start a new idea without opening it. Never go on to a new idea without either closing the previous or making the opening to the next idea so clear that the reader knows the previous idea has closed. Opening and closing your ideas helps keep them clear and distinct in the reader's mind. Think of a piece of business writing as a jigsaw puzzle: when your ideas are merely thrown together in a pile, putting them together can be time-consuming and difficult. However, when the edges of the pieces are well defined and distinct, it is easier to put them all together to form a whole that is usually greater than the sum of its parts.

 

Opening sentences

Open each block with a sentence stating what is in the block.

Examples: "We would be better off purchasing new equipment than upgrading the old." "Holding training sessions in several remote sites would be better than bringing people in from the field to the home office."

An opening sentence opens the concept the writer will be explaining in the next few sentences or paragraphs. It isn't intended to present new information as much as to clue the reader in on which ideas will be coming up next.

List the contents of the block.

For longer sections that have more than one point, the opening sentence should contain a summary of the main points in the section.

Examples: "We can solve the inventory problem through two actions: use just-in-time inventory and reduce the amount of waste."

"As a result, we accomplish three tasks: install the new software, meet with the programmer candidates, and hold the final meeting."

Write an explicit opening using the key terms.

This explanation describes a way of writing openings that are so clear they cannot be misunderstood. You may decide not to make the openings this clear in a brief letter, memo, e‑mail, or report. However, approximate this level of clarity as much as you can in your writing.

Use the key terms you wrote as you prepared your notes. They are the title for the block. They should appear in the heading for the block, the opening sentence, and the explanations.

This is the procedure for opening blocks:

  1. Break for the new point using any of the following: a blank line before, a number, an ordinal (first, second, third), or a heading.
  2. Join this new point to the central idea the point is explaining or supporting by using the key terms from the central idea. When you use the key terms from the central idea, the reader cannot misunderstand that the sentences to follow will explain or support that central idea.
  3. State the content of the new point.
  4. After the opening sentence, begin the explanation or state the list immediately. Don't put sentences between the introduction to the section or list and the first item.
  5. For longer documents, some blocks will have sub-points that may span paragraphs or even pages. Consider listing the sub-points in the opening to the block. That informs the reader about the contents of the block.

Example 1:

This short sample begins with a statement of the contents. It contains a list of the three main points. The opening for the first main point is included in the sample. Note that since this e‑mail contains a list, the opening has a category for the list items, "areas." An explanation of the parts follows this sample.

The agents will need additional support from us in three areas: learning to use the new system, training their administrative assistants to use the system, and converting their old files so the new system reads them.

Learning to Use the New System

The first area in which the agents will need additional support is in learning to use the new system. They . . .

To see an explanation of the parts of the opening, click here.

 

Example 2:

This short sample is divided into blocks with openings and closings. It also opens a list, so it has an item category, "acts."

We must comply with the following three acts regarding sharing customer information: Fair Credit Reporting Act, Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

Fair Credit Reporting Act

The first act we must comply with is the Fair Credit Reporting Act. To share the information . . .

Telephone Consumer Protection Act

The second act we must comply with is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. It allows customers to notify a branch . . .

Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act

The final act we must comply with is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. It requires each financial institution to establish . . .

To see an explanation of the parts of the opening, click here.

 

 

Procedure for using openings and closings

  1. Begin by deciding the main facts, concepts, and procedures you want to include in the letter, memo, e‑mail, or report using the process you learned in the previous step.

  2. Write a statement of contents that lists all of the main ideas, if possible. The statement of contents opens the subject of the entire message.

    Be precise. If there are three products, use the word, "three," in the statement of contents. Do not use vague words such as "many," "some," or "a few." Make sure the beginning words in the list of main ideas are parallel in construction. For example, use "increase, hire, and have" or "increasing, hiring, and having," but do not mix the two constructions.

    Example of a statement of contents: "Our company can use three methods to reduce employee theft: increase the use of surveillance cameras, hire more security personnel, and have more than one employee participate in each activity involving money." There are three main points in this statement of contents:

    1. Increase the use of surveillance cameras.
    2. Hire more security personnel.
    3. Have more than one employee participate in each activity involving money.

  3. Identify the most important words in the statement of contents. These are the key terms that you will Use throughout the writing. Using the same key terms helps the reader to focus on your central idea. In the example, the key terms are "methods to reduce employee theft."

  4. Identify the main point key terms in each of the main point statements. You will use those in each section explaining a main point. In the example, the key terms for the three main points are
    main point 1 - "increase the use of surveillance cameras"
    main point 2 - "hire more security personnel"
    main point 3 - "have more than one employee participate in each activity involving money."

     

Write an opening sentence for each main point.

Write an opening sentence statement for each of the main points. These statements will be the first sentences in new paragraphs. They will open the new ideas so the readers can follow your message. The opening sentence is also a statement to the reader indicating the document's progress in relation to the statement of contents. In this form of writing, you should have an opening sentence at the beginning of each section describing how you are fulfilling the contract with the reader by presenting the information coming up next.

The opening sentence sentences must use the key terms exactly as they are presented in the statement of contents and headings.

These must be explicit because they are the contract you have with the reader. Just as you would not change a contract with a company by using different words for key concepts, you must use the same words throughout this fulfillment of the contract you have made with the reader. Here are the resulting statements of contents and opening sentence sentences (without the specifics).

     Our company can use three methods to reduce employee theft: increase the use of surveillance cameras, hire more security personnel, and have more than one employee participate in each activity involving money.

     The first method our company can use to reduce employee theft is to increase the use of surveillance cameras. Detail here . . .

     The second method our company can use to reduce employee theft is to hire more security personnel. Detail here . . .

     The final method our company can use to reduce employee theft is to have more than one employee participate in each activity involving money. Detail here . . .

The writer uses the same key terms in the list of opening sentences from the statement of contents and in the opening sentence sentences.

Avoid openings and closings that don't work.

Many business writers have learned strategies for openings and closings that do not help to make the breaks as clear. Avoid these.

  1. Opening with a general statement the reader can't easily interpret.

    Some business people don't want to be too obvious about their intentions. It doesn't feel "literary" or "right" to them. These are ineffective openings:

    "Of critical importance to the process are the procedures involved." Meaning: "The steps in the procedure follow."

    "Other means of obtaining the data will be easier to implement." Meaning: "These four methods of obtaining the data will be easier to implement."

    The problem with these openings isn't the statements themselves; it is that the writer assumes the reader will make the connection that the information described in the statements will follow. The reader has to read several sentences of the explanation to realize that the writer is presenting the information alluded to in the opening sentence.

    Don't make the reader do that work. It confuses and frustrates readers. Instead, write the clear, direct statements:

    Instead of "Of critical importance to the process are the procedures involved," write "Four steps of critical importance to the process follow."

    Instead of "Other means of obtaining the data will be easier to implement," write "The following four methods of obtaining the data will be easier to implement."

    Make your openings direct and clear.

  2. The second strategy many business writers use as they attempt to make the breaks clear is to end one section with a lead-in to the next section, as in this example:

    [a paragraph precedes this sentence] However, these sales campaigns are not as effective as the sales campaign that uses several media in tandem.

    Using several media together has an impact on the target audience because they receive the message in several ways. [continues here]

    The last sentence of the previous paragraph is out of place because it introduces a new topic. The reader can easily become confused about whether the next paragraph is explaining that point or going on to another point. You do not need to introduce the next topic at the end of the previous. Instead, break with the paragraph break and introduce the new topic at the beginning of the new paragraph.

 

When the Full Opening Is Not Necessary

For some sections of a report, a full opening such as "This report reviews four findings" will not be appropriate. For example, the "Scope" section doesn't need to begin with "This is the scope of the study." In that case, make sure the first sentence contains the key terms from the heading.

If the section is "Purpose and Scope," the first sentence should contain both "purpose" and "scope" or at least "purpose." If you use "purpose" alone, that means the "Purpose and Scope" section is broken into two parts: (1) Purpose and (2) Scope. In that case, open each section with a sentence using the key term appropriate for the section: "The purpose of this study was to . . ." "The scope of the study was . . ." However, if the section is broken into a purpose section and scope section, you probably should have two headings (one for "Purpose" and one for "Scope") and two distinct sections.

Example

To see an example of a letter that is not broken into blocks and has no openings for the blocks, along with a revision that improves it, click on the "Example" button below. The information will appear in a new window. Close the new window when you're finished looking at the examples.

Example

 

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