Every document, communication, or piece of writing you
produce should have these elements.
I have to admit I was horrified when I first came across
some of the communications sent out by the small grass-roots NGOs I was worked
and volunteered with in developing countries.
Coming from a background in Australian politics, where every
tweet had to comply with a 32 page style guide and was checked by two people,
both with advanced degrees, before it was allowed to be published*, it was
amazing to see Directors of NGOs sending emails to important contacts like ambassadors,
international foundations and government departments without a proper subject
line or capital letters at the beginning sentences. Likewise, I had to bite my
tongue about Facebook posts without even a casual regard for grammar or
These types of faux pas generally pop up in less formal
pieces of communication such as emails, though I have seen it in Social Media, websites,
formal letters and even reports and proposals. In some cases this comes from senior
management being too busy and not seeing proper punctuation a priority in their
hectic schedule. At other times, it may be an important document, for example a
project proposal to be sent to potential donors, that a small team has slaved
over with much time and effort, gone over and proofread and obviously taken a
lot of care to get it right. However even after all this no one has picked up
on things like inconsistent headers and font sizes, which to someone with my
background looks jarring and unprofessional.
I would argue that even when writing an ‘informal’ email to
a contact it is important to ensure all is properly written and laid out, as
this reflects on you and your organisation. Furthermore, your message and the
actual contents may be overlooked and let down by its unprofessional
This stuff actually matters. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe
Directors and staff working 80 hours a week for little or no pay should be
focussing their attention on delivering programs which get kids out of the
Barrio and into University, protect women from abusive husbands, or break up
human trafficking rings, rather than worrying about capital letters and full
But like it or not, this stuff does matter. Important
stakeholders reading these emails, letters and documents may write your
organisation off as too small and inconsequential because the document comes
across as unprofessional, meaning you lose out on influencing important
decision makers or attracting funding opportunities. The same is true for potential
donors or volunteers perusing at your website, Social Media or flyers.
With all that in mind, below is the list of elements to
check before you let any piece of communications leave your desk – whether an
email, report, online communication or printed material.
- Capitals: at the beginning
of each sentence and for names and proper nouns, but not at the beginning of
each word, except sometimes in document titles (but not entire blurbs for
- Formatting: appropriate
paragraphs, spacing and indentations. For reports and long documents make every
section has a heading and the document has a title.
- Proper layout, even in
emails : Dear (name), leave one line space, then start your first paragraph on
the next line, continue one line spaces between paragraphs and before signing
- Punctuation: proper use of
commas, full stops, and other punctuation; for example do not leave spaces between
words and full stops.
- Keep font sizes consistent:
including headers – have a system for sizes of headers, sub-headers and stick
to it throughout the document. For example: headers all 16 point bold,
sub-headers 12 point bold, text 12 point plain).
The serious stuff:
- Always keep “the ask” in mind – what are you asking your reader to do? Make sure you communicate this clearly and ideally repeatedly.
- Likewise, keep the purpose of the document in mind. What are you hoping to achieve by sending it? Does it achieve that purpose?
- Consider the layout of the document – is it logical? Are sections or paragraphs in a logical order? Does the argument flow naturally?
- Don’t bury the lead – make sure your main point and purpose for writing are clear from the beginning.
*perhaps a slight exaggeration