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  • Writer's pictureannaschurmann

New Rules for Documentation

One of the things that breaks my heart in public health and development is the big fat report that no one reads (not on the scale of IMR and MMR – but still). It’s a waste of time, resources and paper. It is - in short - a mistake – and it is an easily avoidable one.

I have a new rule when it comes to technical writing and documentation:

If you cannot start out by clarifying the purpose, intended outcome, the target audience and the key messages – THEN DON’T WRITE THE DOCUMENT.

Go fishing, sit by the pool and drink a cocktail – in fact – do anything else but write a poorly conceived document. If someone says “we don’t know what we want, but if you start writing we can figure it out” – don’t do it. If someone asks you to write 250 page technical reports in English for folks at the block level in Bihar– just don’t do it.

I have described some clear steps below for conceptualizing a document before it is produced. I promise following these steps will save you time and ensure you create a more effective product.

1. Identify the purpose

The first step of creating an effective document is to understand the purpose and the outcome – what do you want the document to do? Do you want it to convince, inspire, instruct or inform? For example, the document’s purpose could be to describe the project’s implementation process. The intended outcome is that the project is replicated.

2. Identify the audience

Secondly, identify who you want the documentation to reach. Do you want it to reach policy decision makers, program implementers, donors or members of the community? The document should be carefully targeted to the needs of the particular audience; their interests, the information they need, and the time they have to read.

Failing to keep the audience in mind is like writing a love letter and then addressing it “to whom it may concern”. Documentation requires a lot of effort – make sure you’re clear for whom you are writing.

You may decide the document has more than one target audience, but it will be easier to produce an effective document if there is a single primary audience you keep in mind. Some potential audiences for a document include: ICDS government officials, NGO partners, Medical Officers, AWWs, government officials from other departments. Try to think of specific individuals rather than a general clump of people – keep one or two people in mind. Would they understand the level of technical information you’re providing?

To help you tailor your document to the target audience, you should consider the following factors:

Language· What language would your audience prefer to read?

Information required· What decisions does your target audience have to make and what information do they need to make these decisions?

Interests & Incentives· What factors are of interest to the audience member?· What information benefits them?

Time available· Does the target audience have time to read a long report?

Format preference· How does your target audience prefer to receive information? Online, in print, on a pendrive? By fax? (joke)

3. Identify the key messages

A good way of keeping a document very focused is to identify the key messages in advance. When you edit and review the document, make sure these messages are clear, and remove additional details that do not reinforce these messages. Every bit of content should push the reader toward the key messages.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

4. Organize the information

There are many different ways project documents can be presented and organized. Here are some ideas that have been successful before:

  • Map it out on a wall: Start by writing post it notes about the themes you want to cover, and try grouping them together, and putting them in a sequence that flows.

  • Describe the project step-wise: If the purpose of documentation is replication, a useful approach is to describe the implementation process as a series of well-defined steps. This way, other NGOs, or the government can replicate the innovation easily, using your document as a guide.

  • Create a policy brief: If the intended audience is a government official, you might want to create a very brief document highlighting the project outcomes and lessons learned in concise and convincing language. An effective policy brief may also include good photos or infographics. From the policy brief the official may decide to replicate the innovation. A policy brief usually includes the following components: Key messages; Background; Policy problem; Intervention; Results; Lessons Learned

  • Organize the document thematically: All projects will have different components, and these can be described in different chapters. With your teams you can identify which factors lead to the success of the project, and then describe these key components. For example: Community participation; Liaising with the Government; Logistics and Supplies.

I hope together we can create a world with more effective documents, less wasted time and more trees (less paper wasted). If you have any other tips for document production - do be in touch!

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