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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

The three-step message gets the job done in a pinch

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

 

If your experience with on-the-job writing is anything like mine, you know how easy it is to write a clear, concise message.

 

All you have to do is request not to be interrupted for half an hour or so, close your office door, clear your mind of all distractions, sit in quiet reflection until your thoughts begin to crystallize, and capture the words as they flow effortlessly from your mind with perfect clarity and impeccable style.  Right?

 

Well, maybe not.

 

The truth more often is this:  As you try to get your thoughts down, you are distracted by dozens of competing concerns and preoccupations, including the co-worker in the hallway who is describing in intimate detail his marvelous mid-winter vacation in the Cayman Islands.  A hour later, after two people have walked into your office and five people have called you on the phone – each needing an immediate response – you have completed your message, which is supposed to be an articulate, organized, cogent statement of your purpose in writing.

 

So what’s new?

 

The next time you find yourself trying to write a message in less-than-ideal conditions like these, try organizing your thoughts using this simple, three-step formula:  purpose, support, proposed action.  It is more than a time-saver for you.  It also ensures that you are stating your purpose clearly and getting to the point quickly for your reader.

 

Here’s how it works.

 

Organize your message into three paragraphs beginning with these phrases:

 

           “I am writing because (or to) . . .”

 

          “The facts are . . .”

 

          “I propose that you . . .”

 

Let’s take some jumbled thoughts and give it a try:  You have just received a message from a vendor telling you that the delivery of software programs promised for February 15 will be at least one month late.  What really annoys you is that you chose this particular vendor because he promised an early date.  To show him he can’t put you off like this, you’ll threaten to invoke your contract’s $1,000-a-day penalty clause.

 

Here’s the message, written according to the three-point formula:

 

“I am writing because I need our new software program installed and operational by February 15, as you promised it would be.

 

“The facts are that I accepted your bid over your competitors because you guaranteed the earliest delivery date.  Now, I must hold you to your promise.

 

“I propose that either you complete installation by February 15 or I invoke the clause of our contract that provides for $1.000 penalty for each day past the deadline you take to complete the project.”

 

After you have written your first draft using these three cues, you may want to go back and change your lead sentences to make them suit your style.  But the approach still works because it’s nearly impossible to complete the phrases without directly stating your purpose, the circumstances, and the action you are calling for.

 

If you find this method useful, you may want to create a macro on your word processor so that these cues (along with the current date, heading information, and your name) appear on command, thus relieving you of having to face that dreaded blank screen.

 

The 3-step formula also works for very brief communications.  Let’s say you are leaving a recorded phone message or sending a quick note by e-mail.  Take, for example, this urgent message, which follows the formula without using the actual cues:  “I’m concerned about our Omaha office.  Our sales these have plummeted 50 percent over the past two months.  Please find out what’s going on and report to me next Monday.”

 

There it is:  one, two, three.

 

I realize there’s something distasteful about this mechanical, almost mindless approach to communication.  Organizing your thoughts with the same standard phrases is a little like painting by the numbers.  But when you need to crank out a clear, concise message in a hurry, why start from scratch?

 

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