Higher Order Concerns: Is Your Document Sound?
In revising your business documents, begin with the Higher Order Concerns (HOCs). The HOCs are aspects of the writing most responsible for the content of the document. This section focuses on the following four main HOCs: Focus and Purpose; Audience; Organization and Document Design; Development.
Focus and purpose
Business writing is action-oriented, rhetorical, and user-centered. It aims to effect positive change, through both persuasive and informative strategies. It is essential that you have a clear understanding of the purpose of your document.
- What is your purpose in writing the document?
- What purpose should the document serve for your reader?
- Is your main point stated early in the document?
- What do you want your reader to do when s/he finishes reading the document?
For professional communication writing, it is very important to keep your audience in mind. Considering your audience will help you make a better argument.
- Have you done enough research about your audience and the organization to which they belong?
- Is your document tailored to the needs of a specific audience (user-centered)?
- Are your tone and language appropriate for your audience?
- Will you have persuaded your reader by the end of the document?
Also see the Audience Analysis handout.
Organization and document design
Effective organization is crucial to the success of a business message. User-centered, logical presentation of your ideas makes the document professional. In addition, you need to organize your document so that your arguments are clear to the reader. Finally, your document's design (visual appearance) impacts the persuasiveness of the communication.
- Does your document begin by explaining your point and forecasting the communication's main ideas?
- Your introduction should answer these three questions from the perspective of the reader:
- What is this?
- Why am I getting it?
- What do you want me to do?
- Does your communication proceed in a logical and organized way, moving from general to specific information?
- Is information arranged in order of importance to your audience?
- Is similar information kept together?
- Is each section organized around only one main idea?
- Do key sentences begin each paragraph?
Ask others to read your document and explain your most important ideas.
A clean, correct, and professional-looking document portrays you as professional. Effective document design increases the usability and persuasiveness of your communication and highlights important information, which helps busy readers.
- Does your document conform to the genre expectations of the document you are composing? (résumé, cover letter, memo, report, etc.)
- Can your readers find information where s/he expects to see it?
- Are key points emphasized by using boldface, underlining, or italics?
- Do you have clear and specific headings?
- Is there any place where you can improve the readability of the document by using indentation or bullets?
Please see the HATS PowerPoint Presentation for details on document design.
Anticipate that your audience will read your document carefully, questioning its validity and claims. Your document should be informative and persuasive, and yet concise enough not to waste your readers' time.
- Do you provide enough background information for the message?
- Have you included specific examples, numbers, dates, names and percentages to support your claims?
- Do you have graphics (charts, graphs, diagrams, and tables) where appropriate?
- Have you eliminated unnecessary and/or obvious information to your audience?
Ask someone to read the document and comment if something is unclear and needs more description, explanation, or support.
Anticipate, also, that your audience may consist of many different readers. Each of these readers will have different needs. Your communication should be designed in a modular fashion, so that different readers can find information they need quickly and easily.
In Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, Paul V. Anderson explains modular communication in this way:
"Modular designs enable you to create a single communication that addresses different readers who have different questions. Dividing your text into modules provides access to a diversity of readers allowing each reader to go directly to the section or sections that are most relevant to him or her" (Companion Site). Communications with complex audiences should contain sections for decisions makers (brief summaries or abstracts) and sections for advisers (the body of the report, technical or budgetary details) (107).
Lower Order Concerns: Does Your Document Look Professional?
Save the Lower Order Concerns, the LOCs, for the last draft, when you are ready to look closely at specific points of grammar and mechanics. Many authors overlook the importance of LOCs, thinking that grammar and mechanics don't matter to busy professionals. However, language, tone, grammar and mechanics influence your communication's readability and persuasiveness. If your audience can't read your sentences because they are riddled with errors, your persuasiveness will decrease and your credibility will suffer. Though you are looking for LOCs after you deal with HOCs, LOCs are just as important as the HOCs in business writing.
Sentence Structure, Punctuation, Word Choice, and Spelling
Clarity, consistency, and conciseness are essential to business writing that presents information accurately, efficiently, and persuasively. Your attention to details will increase the rhetorical effectiveness of your document.
- Have you used clear language?
- Use the BLUF method: you don't want to bluff your audience, so put the Bottom Line Up Front. See the Paramedic Method page for details on clarity.
- Have you used parallelism, the use of similar structures for similar ideas, to make your document consistent?
- Have you chosen appropriate voice, active or passive, for each sentence?
- Have you checked for possible spelling and grammatical errors?
- Proofread out loud. Give your document to someone else to proof. If possible, have your audience read the document and provide feedback. See the Audience Analysis page for details on readers.