I spent years on both sides of the policy-making table: writing things to inform or persuade other people and reading the submissions of people who wanted to inform or persuade me.
Here are my tips for writing a persuasive submission to government:
Imagine your readers
Who are you talking to? Where are they coming from, and what do they want? Remember the two W’s: ‘What’s this about?’ and ‘What’s in it for me?’ Your job is to answer those questions, and quickly.
How much do your readers already know about the subject, and how much do they need to be told? Are they sympathetic to your ideas? Neutral but open to persuasion? Busy and distracted? Or maybe committed to the thing that you disagree with and want to change?
These things will influence your approach: how much detail you go into, how polite you need to be, how forcefully you put your arguments. If you’re not sure of the answers, a good default is probably: neutral, open to persuasion, and busy.
If your readers may include people who disagree with you, be careful. Don’t pour scorn on the existing policy if you want to influence the people whose life’s work was to create it. You won’t make friends that way. Be polite. Focus on what’s good about your ideas, not on what’s bad about theirs.
Be sure you know what you want to say
This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you’re distracted by the challenges of wrangling a fur ball of bright ideas into a structure where one sentence has to follow another.
You’ve considered what your readers want. Now, what do you want? Are you writing to inform, to persuade or to make a call to action? It may be more than one of these, of course.
What’s your story? What’s your line of argument? By ‘line of argument’ I mean something that combines a statement of the issue or problem, relevant background information, evidence or arguments, discussion and analysis in suitable proportions to prove a point or justify a recommendation.
Do you just want to say what you think, or do you want to change someone’s mind? They’re not the same thing. Saying what you think is about you; being persuasive is about satisfying other people’s needs. What are their problems and concerns? How can you frame your recommendation so that agreeing with you will make life easier for them?
Get to the point
No-one sitting at an office desk is reading for fun. Your readers want to get information and ideas from the page into their heads as quickly and easily as possible.
Do them a favour: get to the point. Set out the structure of your submission and make your key points promptly.
If your background or status is relevant, by all means introduce yourself or your organisation—in a few lines. Your full history can go in an appendix.
Write as much as necessary and as little as possible to support your line of argument. Every sentence should answer the ‘so what?’ test: how does it serve the point you’re making in this paragraph? Information is brought in where it’s relevant to the line of argument. Other information that you may want to include for general interest or as a resource for future work can go in an appendix.
A good trick for writing concisely is: write the first draft focusing on the ideas, without worrying too much about the length. Set it aside for a while—preferably at least a day or two, so that when you come back to it you’ll have some mental distance from your own writing and you can start to think more like an editor.
When you come back to it, try to cut it by at least a quarter without losing anything important. Unless you’re a first draft genius, you’ll be amazed by how easy it is.
Give plenty of pointers to the structure
In a longer document, remind readers from time to time of where you are in the structure of the argument. Point out major transitions. Use ‘linking words’ to show how the next sentence or paragraph develops your argument from the previous one (furthermore … however … for example … as a result …). Use cross-references.
Pay close attention to making a logical hierarchy of sections and headings. This helps show readers how your points inter-relate. A good heading is usually a complete clause with a verb that foreshadows something about the argument of the section—not merely a keyword or topic phrase. That way busy readers can get something from your submission even if they read only the headings.
If you’re uncertain where headings should go or what they should say, that may be a sign that you don’t yet have a clear line of argument.
Write in plain English
Writing plain English means writing in a clear, concise style in a ‘standard register’ (a middle-of-the-road level of formality). It does not mean dumbing down your ideas. It does not mean being too informal or colloquial.
Key principles of plain English are:
- Fewer words are generally better than more words. ‘Said’ not ‘was of the opinion that’. ‘Many’ not ‘a considerable number of’. ‘Before’ not ‘prior to’. ‘After’ not ‘subsequent to’.
- Shorter words are generally better than longer words. ‘Help’ not ‘assist’. ‘Start’ not ‘commence’. ‘Give’ not ‘provide with’. ‘About’ not ‘approximately’.
- Shorter sentences are generally better than longer sentences. Within reason—you don’t want to sound like a primary school reader. Remember those linking words.
- Shorter paragraphs are generally better than longer paragraphs. Again, within reason. The main indicator of a new paragraph is a new direction in the line of argument. Try to structure paragraphs so that readers can follow the argument even if they read only the first sentence of each paragraph. The rest of the paragraph elaborates the key idea of the opening sentence.
Give longer submissions a summary
The summary repeats your key points as briefly as possible. It should show the line of argument adequately for readers who read only the summary.
The summary is not a place to write a separate short essay about the topic. It should not contain material that’s not in the main text. Probably the easiest way to make the summary is by copying and pasting key sentences from the main text, using the same order and headings as far as possible. This reduces the risk that the summary says something inconsistent with the main text.
If you’re not sure what the key sentences are that should go in the summary, again this may be a sign that you don’t yet have a clear line of argument.
If you want to write a taster or call to action in a more journalistic style, do that separately, maybe in a preface or covering note.