Top 10 Tips for Editing Documents

  1. Practice Stop/Start – Once you’ve written your document, stop, and start something else. Later come back to the document and read it with “fresh eyes.”
  2. Read what you’ve written slowly and aloud.
  3. When reading, use a blank sheet of paper to cover the content not yet proofed, so you’re just focusing on the line you’re reading.
  4. Edit for Structure and Content first – Do the “big picture” editing before the proofreading for grammar, spelling, punctuation etc.
  5. Edit for Style – appropriate tone, use of gender, sentence structures, passive voice, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.
  6. Shorten your sentences by cutting long ones in two. Keep your paragraphs short.
  7. Check clarity, anything that might be unclear to the reader. Check accuracy.
  8. Reduce the use of adverbs and adjectives; use stronger words. Examples: Use “great” rather than “really good.” Use “she sprinted” rather than “she ran quickly.”
  9. Avoid “empty words” – “in order to, start to, that, there is/are, due to the fact that,” etc.
  10. Avoid unnecessary gerunds (ing). Say “she ran toward” rather than “she was running toward.”

DON’T Fabricate Your Reports

Don’t ever fabricate anything in your briefing notes or reports. Before you consider writing something that is not true, or is deliberately misleading, think about what the consequences could look like as a newspaper headline. For example, imagine a photo of yourself in the Ottawa Citizen under the headline “Bureaucrat says he had to invent account of business summit because report was due before event.” According to the Citizen, an October 2012 report to Ottawa City Council, written by the economic development director and formally submitted by the city manager, contains detailed praise for an event that hadn’t yet happened.

DO Push Back: It’s Always Political

Coaching advice to a public sector Manager: Push back. Don’t let anyone push you into political situations without giving you all the information you need.

The Situation: Unbeknownst to the Manager, one of her senior executives met with a stakeholder who then sent a document (about commitments made at the meeting) to the senior executive’s office as “heads up” that it was going to be tabled at the next public meeting in three days. The senior executive’s assistant sent an email to the stakeholder (copying the Manager) telling the stakeholder to meet with the Manager to resolve some of the inaccuracies in the document. The stakeholder called the Manger to set up the meeting.

Coaching Advice: The Manager asked PublicSectorWriting.com for advice and was coached to “push back” as it’s ALWAYS POLITICAL. The Manager did not brief the senior executive, was not debriefed following the meeting, has never seen the document and does not know what happened at the meeting. The stakeholder wants to advance her agenda, the “heads up” is a mere foil, the executive assistant does not want to be the one who ends up being responsible for the “inaccuracies” in the document. The senior executive can later report to his superior that he told one of his Managers to “fix it” and she failed to do so.

How to Push Back: The Manager could tell the senior executive’s assistant (by email so the Manager has an audit trail) that she does not know what happened at the meeting, what the inaccuracies are, what the executive wants to say instead, or what the organization’s messages are about this issue. Tell the executive’s assistant she will not meet with the stakeholder without knowing this, as the tabling is in three days. The executive’s office must tell the stakeholder not to table the document.

DO pay attention to media influence

I know you’ll hear that decisions are not driven by media reports, however, the reality is that the day starts with delivery of the latest media clips to Minister’s Offices (MOs) and senior executives offices. Early in the morning, MO staff are meeting with departmental communications and parliamentary affairs staff to review media clips and request the production of Question Period cards and briefing notes.

So when you are writing any briefing product for the Minister or Deputy Minister, accept that they operate in a media driven, political environment. Take that into consideration when presenting options and considerations; tell them what anticipated media reaction will be and why.

DON’T Tell Decision Makers What To Do

A common mistake when writing for Ministers is to use “imperative” rather than “suggestive” or “conditional” language. For example:

  • DON’T SAY the government must do x; DO SAY the government might consider X.
  • DON’T SAY it is imperative the Minister consider or do x; DO SAY it is important that consideration be given to x.
  • DON’T SAY the government should do; DO SAY the government could do.

Remember, we don’t tell decision makers what to do. We analyse, provide options and make recommendations for consideration.