10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience: 1. Obscurity

Does your organisation publish reports that aim to influence senior decision-makers? Richard Cheeseman offers some advice.

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Over the last two decades I have edited something like 3 million words written by other writers. A big chunk of this total has been in reports published to inform influential people about global policy in public health, aid and development.

I hasten to add I am no expert in these areas. What little I have learned has been picked from the brains of academics and subject specialists, so I cannot comment on their areas of expertise. Where I can contribute is by stress-testing their writing for meaning, clarity and purpose – and for basics like syntax and spelling.

Organisations target a senior readership of politicians, business leaders, philanthropists and other influencers when publishing their policy and advocacy reports. These people are generally non-specialists and cannot be expected to know all the jargon attached to complex subjects such as nutrition and women’s and children’s health. They do not have the time to penetrate a tangled undergrowth of densely written prose, so information should be in a form they can process quickly. These are the people I will keep in mind when writing these posts.

Rather than framing this short series as a list of ways to improve your writing, I am calling it a list of 10 things to avoid – because it is much easier to eradicate bad practice than to learn how to “write better”.

If you avoid the things I mention in this column over the next few weeks you will not become the new Ernest Hemingway (I would start with my own writing if my advice could achieve that), but I hope you will write with more clarity, economy and precision. These three things will help if your aim is to publish an effective and readable policy report – or indeed any factual document whose aim is to convey detailed information simply and clearly.

I have encountered all the examples used in this series, or ones very like them, in the course of my editing work.

1. Avoid obscurity

“Addressing barriers to access around diagnostics has been key to advances in health care.”

A sentence like this is often a well-intentioned, if ungrammatical, attempt to summarise a vast amount of evidence in just a few words. If you have ever written something similar in a despairing attempt to condense your knowledge into a single pithy phrase, you have my sympathy. Unfortunately, the meaning is obscure and virtually every word begs a question.

As an editor I ask myself:

  • Who is doing the addressing and what form did it take?
  • What are the barriers? (physical, legislative, cultural, geographical, political?)
  • Who is having problems with access?
  • What, specifically, are diagnostics?
  • Why around? (are we talking about diagnostics or not?)
  • What is the link between the addressing and the advancing?
  • What were the advances?

Some or all of these questions may be answered later in your document. However, you should give your readers a clear indication of what is to come. A sentence like this should act as a signpost that encourages them to read on.

So, based on what I understand of the writer’s intended meaning (I have assumed I know the report is about HIV/AIDS), I might rewrite the sentence as:

“By funding free transport to health clinics, non-governmental organisations have made it easier for poor people in rural areas to get tested for HIV. This has led to increased prescription of antiretroviral drugs and a reduction in mortality from AIDS.”

Note that the new text provides more specific information about who did what, who benefited, and what the outcomes were. It also avoids vague catch-all words like “addressing”, “barriers”, “access” and “around”. These are fine in their place but should be used sparingly or else they become devalued (I will return to this point in a later post).

The new text is two sentences rather than one, and more than twice the length of the original, so this is an edit for meaning rather than brevity.  It is a false economy to try and save words by summarising to the point of obscurity. By doing so you risk losing some readers before they even get started on your report. And you will probably have to compensate for those who do stick with it by adding more explanation later in the text.

Summary: if a sentence raises more questions than it answers you should revise it.

Next post: 2. Avoid complexity


About Richard Cheeseman

Freelance writer, speechwriter and editor
This entry was posted in Writing and editing advice and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to 10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience: 1. Obscurity

  1. Pingback: 5. Devalued words (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience) | Richard Cheeseman's blog

  2. Pingback: 4. Passive language (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience) | Richard Cheeseman's blog

  3. Pingback: The Art of Academic Writing (for Policy Makers & Everyone Else) | Richard Cheeseman's blog

  4. Pingback: 3. Abstract language (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience) | Richard Cheeseman's blog

  5. Pingback: 2. Complexity (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience) | Richard Cheeseman's blog

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