Writing Reports for City Council

City staff provide objective, professional advice to Council, and implement Council’s decisions (in accordance with policies and bylaws, and statutory powers, such as the Community Charter).

If, for any reason, trust and relationships are eroded, the City’s political decision making process will bog down, Council deliberations will often get side tracked, and decisions deferred (or sent back to staff for more information that may not even be needed to make the decision).

The best way for staff to support effective decision making, by Council, is to write Reports that foster Council’s trust and confidence in staff. When writing any Report for Decision, ask yourself: “Have I presented all the reasonable options/choices for Council’s consideration? Are the options presented objectively? For each option, have I explained the advantages/benefits and the disadvantages/costs. Is the recommendation substantiated? Would I be confident using this Report to make a decision if I were a Council member?

Providing anything less may lead Council members to suspect they are being manipulated or managed by staff; or being pushed into staff’s desired outcome, without being given all the objective, reasoned advice an elected official is entitled to when asked to make a decision.

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.”

Plain Language Training Guides

Human Resource Development Canada once funded development of a Plain Language Online Training site which no longer exists. The instructional content of the site was adapted from a 1991 Government of Canada writing guide called Plain Language: Clear and Simple and an accompanying Trainer’s Guide.

Although both documents are difficult to find these days, according to Canadian editor Iva Cheung, “despite their age, they are among the best plain writing guides I have come across”. She has made pdf copies available (in both official languages) for free download on Google Drive. If you are interested, click here to go to her site. They are also available for free download on Clear Communication Wiki.

Roles & Conduct of Federal Ministers

In November 2015, the Prime Minister of Canada released OPEN AND ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT outlining the roles and responsibilities of Ministers and the standard of conduct expected of Ministers. It also provides guidance to ministerial exempt staff and useful information for public servants.  The entire document, is available on the PM’s website.

French Writing Resources

We were asked in a Writing Excellent Briefing Notes webinar for resources in French. Here are some suggestions:

PWGSC maintains the Language Portal of Canada, which provides access to Canadian resources for communicating effectively in both official languages. There is a section called decouvrir-discover that contains links to a variety of free resources (federal, provincial, academic etc). Click and go to the French Site, or the English Site.

The free Public Service Commission of Canada Style Guide is online: Click here for the French Version or the English Version.

The Canadian School of Public Service offers a variety of writing courses in both official languages and varying price ranges. Click on the link for one in French called Rédaction de notes d’information ciblées, or the English version Writing Targeted Briefing Notes.

Orwell’s Rules on Writing

George Orwell’s Rules, from “Politics and the English Language“, (1946), are timeless.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Follow these rules and you may well be reversing the decline of the English language . As Orwell explained:

“It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

Why Would You Want A Resource Centre?

Why would you want us to create an online password-protected Resource Centre for your organization? The answer is in the question: “What do I do? I’ve just been tasked with writing a QP card (or options briefing note, or Memorandum to the Minister)”.

An online Resource Centre will:

  • Provide podcast and written training materials to improve the quality of the products your staff produce;
  • Provide templates and examples using content specific to your organization (you tell us which key issues you want covered in the examples, we research and write the examples);
  • Present detailed information on How It Works – Question Period; or the Memoranda to Cabinet process; or Cabinet briefing; or whatever it is you want included in your Resource Centre;
  • Offer examples and advice on how to find your department’s key messages or the Minister’s preferred responses;
  • All in a password-protected on line-site that can only be accessed by us and the people you give your password to. And it can be updated over time to meet your organization’s needs.

There are even more reasons, like, it’s very cost effective and provides value for money – think of it an as always available training session. All material is clearly identified as examples for training purposes. Your users can download & copy the material or leave it on our password protected site and and access it whenever needed. And we have more expertise in this area than most do – more than 20 years experience serving Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

Purdue's Online Writing Resources

Although the focus is not public sector writing specifically, Purdue University has a great Online Writing Lab (OWL) offering free writing resources and instructional material. You’ll find everything from job search writing to all you need to know about use of semi colons. 

The OWL Site Map provides a bird’s eye view of resources for writing and teaching writing; research; grammar and mechanics; style guides; english as a second language (ESL); and job search and professional writing. 

All the material is copyrighted by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University but individuals and teachers can use it.

Susan Doyle on Writing for Government

U Vic English professor Susan Doyle has a great website “English 302: Writing for Government“. You’ll find topics such as Characteristics of Good Government Writing;  How to Write Briefing Notes, Correspondence, Press Releases, Summaries etc. The course gives students practice in writing tasks commonly performed by government communications professionals or content specialists. Check out the related resources on the website.

University of Victoria’s Writers’ Guides

The University of Victoria provides two online writer’s guides that may be useful. Check out the Business Writer’s Guide or the Report and Proposal Writing Guide.

A Hypertext Writer’s Guide, originally prepared for students in the English Department, is no longer available.