Writing Good Business Documents

These are notes I took several years ago over something I read on writing good business documents. I can’t recall what I had read, but these notes have always been helpful.


General principles for proposals, memos, letters, and reports.

“Organization is the key writing principle. If you organize your documents well, you almost surely will have successful documents–even if you violate other writing principles….The ideas presented in a document should be structured in a natural but emphatic sequence that conveys the most important information to readers at the most critical times.”

Beginning Principles

1. The document should announce its organizational scheme and stick to it.

2. The ideas in the document must be clear and sensible, and comprehensible, given the readers.

3. The document should conform to the readers’ sense of what the most important points are and of how those points are arranged.

Main Principles

1. Organize information according to your readers’ needs. Consider their perspective and what they need to know, then order it so that the most pertinent goes at the beginning.

2. Group similar ideas. If you separate similar ideas, you create chaos.

3. Place your most important ideas first. Lead from major ideas, not to major ideas. This is not a science paper. If you lead to, you will provide unnecessary detail and be hard to follow. The strongest part of a document is the beginning, by virtue of its position. So begin with the most important ideas, and then support them afterward.

The scientific format. If you are writing a scientific paper, then you do lead to. This process is only acceptible if the readers will be as interested in the process of arriving at the conclusions as they are in the conclusions themsleves (in business, this is typically not the case–people are busy, and the point is not exegesis). In some scientific reports, therefore, this scheme is used: Abstract, summary, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion (Fact 1, Fact 2, Fact 3, therefore), conclusions, recommendations (optional), summary (optional).

– The managerial format. Follow in all dcouments except sicentific documents written for scientific peers. It is the reverse of the scientific format. A desirable format is: Summary/Executive summary, introduction, conclusions (and recommendations), (because of) [Fact 1, Fact 2, Fact 3, Fact 4], results and discussion. Having the conclusion early in the report facilitates reading becasue the reader is given a perspective from which to understand the facts and data being presented.

Note: The principle of emphasis through placement extends to all documents and all sections of documents. Most important ideas should appear at beginning of the documents and of individual sections. The most important idea in most paragraphs should appear in the opening sentence. The most important words in a sentence typically come at the beginning of the sentence.

Note 2: A corrolary of this is that you should always subordinate detail. Place it in the middle of sentences, paragraphs, sections, and documents. Detail includes data, explanation, elaboration, description, analysis, results, etc.

Note 3: In lengthy documents, begin and end with important ideas.

4. Keep your setups short. Do not delay your major ideas any longer than is necessary. Do make sure to set up negative information well.

5. List items in descending order of importance.

6. In most business or technical documents, preview your most important ideas and your major content areas, and reveiw (summarize) major points at the end of sections.

7. Discuss items in the same order in which you introduce them.

8. Use headings, transitions, key words, and paragraph openings to provide cues to the documents organization.

9. Other. Most effective letters or memos should have a clearly identified action (a to-do statement). If no to-do, then needs to begin with a to-know statement. Title/subject line should reflect the to-do or to-know statement. The repitition between the to-do statement and title/subject line is deliberate.

Sam Storms on Insecurity in the Pastorate

Sam Storms, from his post What I Wish I’d Known: Reflections on Nearly 40 Years of Pastoral Ministry:

10. I wish I’d known about the destructive effects of insecurity in a pastor. This is less because I’ve struggled with it and more due to its effect I’ve seen in others. Why is insecurity so damaging?

• Insecurity makes it difficult to acknowledge and appreciate the accomplishments of others on staff (or in the congregation). In other words, the personally insecure pastor is often incapable of offering genuine encouragement to others. Their success becomes a threat to him, his authority, and his status in the eyes of the people. Thus if you’re insecure you likely won’t pray for others to flourish.

• Insecurity will lead a pastor to encourage and support and praise another pastor only insofar as the latter serves the former’s agenda and doesn’t detract from his image.

• An insecure pastor will likely resent the praise or affirmation other staff members receive from the people at large.

• For the insecure pastor, constructive criticism is not received well, but is perceived as a threat or outright rejection.

• Because the insecure pastor is incapable of acknowledging personal failure or lack of knowledge, he’s often unteachable. He will resist those who genuinely seek to help him or bring him information or insights he lacks. His spiritual growth is therefore stunted.

• The insecure pastor is typically heavy-handed in his dealings with others.

• The insecure pastor is often controlling and given to micromanagement.

• The insecure pastor rarely empowers or authorizes others to undertake tasks for which they’re especially qualified and gifted. He won’t release others but rather restrict them.

• The insecure pastor is often given to outbursts of anger.

• At its core, insecurity is the fruit of pride.

In summary, and at its core, insecurity results from not believing the gospel. The antidote to feelings of insecurity, then, is the rock-solid realization that one’s value and worth are in the hands of God, not others, and that our identity expresses who we are in Christ. Only as we deepen our grasp of his sacrificial love for us will we find the liberating confidence to affirm and support others without fearing their successes or threats.

How Can I Help? A Children's Book on Vocation

Gene Veith’s daughter, Mary Moerbe, has published what looks like an excellent book on vocation for kids called How Can I Help? God’s Calling for Kids.

As you know, Gene Veith is the author of the excellent, defining book on vocation in our day, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of LifeHis daughter’s book takes these concepts and applies them to kids.

Here’s the Amazon summary:

God sends people to help in little ways and big ways. He calls all of us to love and to serve others, to help however we can no matter how old or young we are. Christians have multiple vocations: at work, in church, as citizens in society, or as family members.

A child’s call to love and serve is the same as an adult’s.

Work = developing their talents
Church = going to Sunday School and learning about God
Citizens = learning how to act and behave in public
Family = learning to honor their parents

How Can I Help? teaches children that God
1. provides for their needs, sometimes through others he places in their life
2. works through them to help others
3. has a plan for their life no matter what vocation they choose
4. sent Jesus who was not just a helper, but their Savior

That description captures the doctrine of vocation so well that even adults can learn from it. Notice four crucial things.

First, vocation is about serving others! Jesus placed a high priority on service. What we often fail to realize is that the Scriptures actually bring these teachings together into an actual doctrine — namely, the doctrine of vocation. The heart of the doctrine of vocation is that we are all here to serve, and we serve others through our daily work and roles.

Second, right along with this, we are also served through others’ vocations and, more than that, it is ultimately God himself who is working in all of this. When we are serving others, it is God working through us to meet their needs. Likewise, when others serve us, it is ultimately God working through them to meet our needs. Hence, the doctrine of vocation points us to an understanding of life that is infused with the presence of God, and glorifies him as the ultimate servant (which is the ultimate mark of greatness — Matthew 20:25-28; Acts 20:35).

Third, notice how the summary captures the essence of work as “developing [your] talents.” Though the book may not go into this in detail, I think that captures something very important. We often think of work as something ultimately done to earn money and make a living. But that is a very reductionistic view of work. It treats people merely as economic beings, rather than people who are in the image of God and full of incredible potential that is worth developing. So developing our talents and using them for the good of others (in a way that is profitable and meets our needs) is actually a fundamental, essential aspect of our work.

Some people have gone so far as to say it is selfish to seek to develop your talents in your work. I think that is ridiculous. In fact, I think that work is thankfully a zone where God protects us from the bad theology of these zealous over-spiritualizers by actually mandating that we care very much about the exercise of our gifts in our work — not just making money.

Fourth, vocation applies to everyone, even children. It is an amazing thing that, as Gene Veith says, even “being a child is a vocation.”

This looks like a helpful book for helping anchor young children in this very important doctrine, right from the beginning of their lives.

Generous Justice

Tiim Keller speaking on his book, Generous Justice

In my view, this is one of the most important books anyone can read this year. This message gives a good summary of the content in 30 minutes.

I love the way he starts, pointing out how “many who are concerned about justice are not concerned about justification by faith alone; many who are concerned about justification by faith alone are not concerned about justice.”

This is something that needs to change — and, fortunately, is (slowly) changing. It is especially interesting that, as Timothy George points out in his book The Theology of the Reformers, one of Luther’s own burdens was to establish that “Christian ethics…is grounded in justification by faith alone.”

Keller shows what that means.

How People Change: A Conference January 23-25 in Jacksonville, FL

This January 23 – 25, Paramount Church in Jacksonville, FL is having a conference on “How People Change” with Tim Lane.

My friend John Fonville is the preaching pastor at Paramount, which is hosting the conference. John is one of my favorite preachers in the whole world because of his relentless gospel-centeredness.

I am excited about the work that their church is doing (you can check out their website to learn more). This conference would be a great opportunity to both experience the great work they are doing there and learn about how to create lasting change in your life.

Here is the description of the conference:

What does it take for lasting change to take root in your life? If you’ve ever tried, failed, and wondered why, you need to come to How People Change. Tim Lane will show us the biblical pattern for change in a clear, practical way you can apply to the challenges of daily life. But change involves more than a biblical formula: you will see how God is at work to make you the person you were created to be. That powerful, loving, redemptive relationship is at the heart of all positive change you experience.

The conference includes five sessions with Dr. Lane: two sessions Friday night, and three on Saturday morning. Each session is followed by Q&A time where you will be able to ask Dr. Lane your questions.

Learn more and register at the website.

20 Characteristics of an All-In Leader

Excellent stuff from Brad Lomenick:

Are you a leader who is “ALL IN?”

I want leaders on my team who are “all in.” Coaches want players who are “all in” on their teams. Every organization out there wants employees and team members who are “all in.”

Being ALL IN as a leader means:

1. You don’t constantly look at the clock, and you’re not punching a time card. Your role is not defined by 9 – 5.

2. You get it done no matter how long it takes. You are “managerless,” meaning no one else has to worry about whether you are getting it done.

3. You realize you are part of something bigger than yourself, and humbly accomplish the goals because of a larger motivation than just you.

4. Giving just the “minimum” amount of effort required to get by without “getting in trouble” doesn’t even cross your mind.

5. Your hard work and excellence is done with pure motives. You are not worried about climbing the ladder or impressing anyone.

Read the whole thing.

Christians Need History, and Christians Need Heroes: Princeton Seminary (1812-1929)

My friend Gary Steward has just released his book Princeton Seminary (1812-1929): Its Leaders’ Lives and Works

It has endorsements from JI Packer, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, and others. Here’s a short description:

Many of the key ideas of the modern era, and Christian responses to them, were formulated at the time of “Old Princeton.” Gary Steward introduces us to the great men of Princeton Theological Seminary from its founding to the early twentieth century, together with some of their most important writings.

Why does this matter? Because, as Gary says at the beginning of the video trailer for the book, “Christians need history, and Christians need heroes.” Gary’s book introduces you to many great, but often overlooked, heroes of the church whom we need to hear from again today.

I’ll let Gary tell you more about that, and the book, in this video:


The Overstatement of NT Wright

In the upcoming book The Lost World of Adam and Eve, NT Wright has a chapter called “Paul’s Use of Adam [in Romans 5; 1 Cor 15] is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins: Excursus on Paul’s Use of Adam.”

I’ve seen Wright make that claim in other places as well.

Let’s set aside for the time being the claim that Paul’s use of Adam has nothing to say about a historical Adam and Eve. I want to focus on his statement that Romans 5 is more interested in the effects of sin on the cosmos than people, because you see that a lot in people who are rightly trumpeting that redemption has a cosmic element.

So, first, what’s good about what Wright is trying to say here: redemption has a cosmic element and that is super important. I am glad he affirms that so clearly in his work (though I think he mis-states the condition of the evangelical church as mostly thinking of heaven in ethereal terms).

But many who trumpet this cosmic element of redemption get something very important wrong in how they do it: they sometimes state things a way that makes it sound like the cosmic element of redemption is more important than the human element. And that’s just not true.

That’s what Wright does here. He says Paul in his use of Adam is “more interested in the effect of sin on the cosmos than…on humanity.”

First, I’d say that’s a misreading of the passage. But that is not my point here. My point here is much more basic. My point is that NT Wright is forgetting to integrate into his statement here and perhaps thought more generally on this subject a very basic human and, more important, biblical, value scale.

The value scale is this: humans are more important than things.

That means that human beings are more important than the entire cosmos.

In fact, of course, the cosmos exists for the sake of human beings (Colossians 1:16 — if it exists for Christ, it exists for Christians, who are his body).

So we can never say that the Scriptures are more interested in the effect of sin on the cosmos than on people. It is an overstatement that ends up distorting the truth.

When Paul, or any biblical author, is focused on the effects of sin on the cosmos, the reason always ultimately has to do with people and how the fall (or redemption) of the cosmos affects them, simply because of the basic fact that humans are more important than things (and, therefore, the cosmos).

I even saw someone once observe about Genesis that “you almost get the impression that Adam and Eve exist for the sake of the Garden.” No, you don’t. This person had the good motive of trying to affirm the importance of work. But in doing so, they didn’t keep that in mind with other core truths (and thus ended up distorting the doctrine of work as well). Work exists for the upbuilding of people, not the environment we are in or the tasks themselves.

And so also with the redemption of the cosmos. It is emphatically not a greater thing than the redemption of people. Rather, it happens because of the redemption of people and for our sake. 

The cosmos exists for the sake of people, and therefore is redeemed for the sake of people. The redemption of the cosmos is not a greater thing than the redemption of God’s people.

Of course Wright might say that he is making a statement here of the subject Paul is addressing in Romans 5. One can focus on the effects of sin on the cosmos without necessarily saying that the cosmos is more important than people. That is true, and hopefully this is what Wright would say.

But my response would be that he should word his claims differently, in order to keep from obscuring that truth. (And then I’d point to the flow of thought in the text itself to show that I also think he is wrong — Paul is ultimately seeking to show the effects of sin on the human race in his use of Adam, not just or ultimately the cosmos.)

This, in turn, brings us back to the issue of origins — the main focus of NT Wright’s statement and title for his chapter.

If Paul is, as I have argued, ultimately concerned about the effects of sin on humanity in his use of Adam, not ultimately the effects of sin on the cosmos, then his use of Adam does indeed have much to say about origins.

Resources for the New Year

Here are a few resources to help you get the new year off to a great start.

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things DoneOf course I’ll be recommending my book here! The beginning of the year is a good time to refine your mission, vision, roles and goals. What’s Best Next can help you as you think through these higher levels. It can also help at the levels of improving how you organize your projects and actions, as well as dealing with productivity killers such as procrastination and multi-tasking.

Seven Principles for Setting Goals that WorkMy post at Michael Hyatt’s blog from earlier this year. These principles can be helpful in setting new year’s resolutions, which are really just a type of goal.

The Yearly Review. My interview on Moody South Radio’s Fresh Start from yesterday on the benefits of reviewing your year and how to do it. (5-8 minutes or so.)

Setting New Years Resolutions You’ll Actually Stick With. A live Q&A Michael Hyatt is doing on Friday.

New Year’s Resolutions and 1 Thessalonians 1. A great lab by John Piper (as are all of them). Is it biblical to set resolutions? Interestingly, the Bible actually speaks very affirmingly of resolutions. What the Bible especially commends is setting resolutions for good. That is an exciting thing. “He who is noble plans noble things” (Isaiah 32:8).

And my chief tips for New Year’s resolutions today are this:

  1. Read God’s Word. The best resolution you can make is likely to go deeper in daily, focused reading and study in God’s word — and then, of course, to do what it says (James 2:22-25). If most Christians simply made this single resolution, it would have a greater impact than anything else.
  2. Follow God’s Word. In relation to point 1, note again the extreme importance of actually doing what the Bible says. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). This is a point that Jesus made over and over, and which stuck with the disciples as one of the most important take-aways from his entire ministry. It’s not enough just to read and study the Bible and listen to good preaching. You have to do what it says. Obviously you can’t do what it says if you don’t know what it says; interestingly, as you do what it says you will find that you come to understand what it says even more deeply.
  3. Get a Head Start. Start your New Year’s resolutions a week early. Sorry for the late nature of this tip! I’ve found this is one of the best ways to help ensure you stick with your resolution(s), because it enables you to go into the year already having some momentum. You already feel ahead, and thus in the second or third week of January, when most people quit, you might already have the habit in place and make it through.