How to simplify your written Business Analysis documents
I want people who read my writing to understand what I’m telling them and to take meaningful actions afterwards. Writing well is a vital skill for Business Analysts (BAs). But training courses and books for BAs don’t offer much practical guidance on how to do this. As I’ve had some lovely positive feedback about how I write, I decided to share some tips on this. I hope these tips help and I welcome feedback to keep improving my writing too.
As BAs, we often have to explain complex topics in writing. Our readers are often busy and may be unfamiliar with the content. We spend ages analysing a topic in great depth, only to have to summarise it in a tiny paragraph. All of this makes for a tough writing challenge. Luckily, writing is a skill you can improve if you practice and have some help.
My guide to simple writing for BAs covers how to:
- Set your goals. Make sure your writing gets things done.
- Structure your content. Bring your readers along with you.
- Make yourself understood. Write so people know exactly what you mean.
I hope that by breaking down how I approach writing, it will help others who are finding this a problem. I want people to have some simple tools to confidently solve their BA writing challenges. So let’s get started with some analysis of why we’re writing.
Part 1: Set your goals
Writing takes time, especially when you’re trying to write well. You need clear goals to make that effort count. Knowing what the overall aim is for your writing will make sure you stay focused.
Often it is tempting to put in everything you know. After doing in-depth analysis you want to make sure it’s valued. But not every reader will want to know everything. And not every document has to include everything. Start with a quick check of who will be reading it and why are you writing it. Your stakeholder analysis and project goals should be a great starting point for this.
1.1 Who is your audience?
When we think about writing, we should always have the reader in mind. And they’re not some general, imaginary reader. Specific people in your project and business read your documents. Hopefully, you know them and have covered them in stakeholder analysis. But it’s worth thinking about them a bit more as you write. Here are some of the key things I consider when thinking about readers:
Many times you need to communicate to several different audiences in a project. You may have to create two documents with the same content presented in different ways. Or you may need to get everything into a single document. In this case, you’ll need different parts to target different audiences. You can use sections such as executive summaries or technical detail specifications to flag to readers the relevant parts for them.
Your readers will also have expectations of how BAs write. You need to judge whether you should always try to fit that expectation. It might be time to change how people expect business analysis to be communicated.
Always keep your reader in mind as you write. When you get stuck, think about what they will need. If you’ve got a good relationship with them, have a chat about what they really want. User research may be very helpful here.
1.2 What is the purpose of this?
Next, you need to be clear why you are writing this. What do you want to happen? Are you documenting knowledge for the future, creating training materials, or providing information to help make a decision?
Stop and think: is writing the best way to get that outcome? Often your audiences prefer other forms of communication. And some other ways of communicating will avoid issues that are harder to tackle in writing.
Could you achieve your goals through one of these: meetings, demos, prototypes, training videos, whiteboarding sessions, post-it notes, or just a quick chat? Or a halfway option might be a presentation. You can plan your content and include notes, but you’ll still be talking and interacting.
There are lots of long emails out there that should have been a quick meeting. But equally, there have been lots of long meetings. Some would have been better as a written document to be read at people’s leisure.
Know why you’re writing this and who it’s for. This will allow you to make the right decisions when planning and writing.
Part 2: Structure your content
A little planning makes a big difference in how easy a document is to read and write. This doesn’t need to be a formal or detailed plan. It can be as simple as: “I’ll do it the way I did the last one”.
You may end up changing the plan as you go along. But it’s easier to spot mistakes in a rough plan than a long piece of writing. Think of your plan as a prototype that tests your ideas.
2.1 The planning stage
Planning is usually not the most interesting part of writing. It can be tempting to just jump straight into writing and think you’ll rearrange the structure later. But this quickly leads to missed content, confusing jumps between sections and a painful writing process. Try instead to stick to this basic process:
And yes, that is ‘design’ at the very end of the flow. Try not to put in colours, pick fonts and add decorative illustrations in as you go along. Quite often you’ll need to make structural changes in the ‘review’ stage which will undo this work.
You can always plan your design in the ‘plan’ stage. But leave it until the very end to apply it. This saves a lot of time and also means that if you are running late, you at least have the core content.
2.2 Choosing your structure
You should have a clear view of your document’s audience and purpose before you start planning. Use this to decide on the overall structure and sections of your document. Here are some suggestions for questions you might want to consider:
- Are your audience clear what this document is? Is this obvious from a familiar structure? Or do you need to explain its purpose?
- How long is this going to be? Do you need sections and a table of contents?
- Does it need a summary of the key information at the top to allow busy readers to get the main points? Writing a summary can also be a great way for you to focus your attention and check you’ve covered everything.
- Do you need an introduction (or background/context section)? This will be based on what you think your audience will already know
- What’s the best fit for structuring content: theme, actors, systems, the flow of data/orders, past to future, or big picture to small details (that’s what I’ve used here). The aim is to turn the content into nice bite-sized chunks which are clearly linked. There is usually no single right way to do this. But try to be consistent.
Some of this may seem repetitive. An introduction and summary may cover the same content, which you also cover in detail through the document. This isn’t necessarily a problem though. It’s a pattern often used in presentations: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. Repeating yourself helps your reader if the topic is complex or the document is very long.
I’m not going to go into things like document control, versioning, signoffs, sources/references and risk/assumption sections. These are all still important. But your use of them may depend more on the project management and BA approaches than writing style. You should include all mandatory sections for your project in the way the team expects. But you still need to plan out the content within the structures you are given.
2.3 Getting your structure unstuck
If you find it hard to pick the right structure, these are three ways to get started:
- Start with a mind-map or write your main points and examples on post-it notes. Explore different ways of grouping up the information.
- Use pre-made document structures. There are lots of templates for business cases, impact assessments, or other common BA documents. Your team may already have these.
- Speak to someone. If you explain what you’re trying to do, you will often find the structure makes itself clear as you’re speaking.
Part 3: Make yourself understood
Now that you have understood your writing goals and created a plan, you need to focus on how you write. For complex topics, the writing needs to be as simple as possible. And your readers need to understand the words and terms you use. But you can also support your writing with visuals, diagrams and simple formatting. Let’s get into the fine details of how to improve this.
3.1 Writing readably
Your writing needs to be really easy to read so that people can focus on what you’re telling them. It can feel like simplifying your writing is insulting to the clever, knowledgeable teams you work with. But all the evidence shows that even experts prefer readable text.
Get the boring stuff right
When people see that you get the little details right, they trust you on the big details. So take the time to make sure you’ve got the core stuff perfect: spelling, grammar, and formatting.
For spelling and grammar, built-in spellcheckers can help. Or you might be able to use a tool like Grammarly (check with your security policies first). I love Grammarly because it catches silly errors and helps me continuously improve by educating me on my mistakes.
And get the formatting straightened out. Simple things like using the same font, colour, and size for your text make it look professional. Yes, this also applies in your emails.
Be kind to your reader and connect the dots
Next, help your reader out. Assume they are tired and rushing through your document. Avoid making them figure things out. Often, when we’ve been doing a lot of analysis we end up just sticking facts next to each other, as they are what’s we’ve been focused on. But this can lead to a jumble of sentences without any structure or direction.
Instead, add a few extra words to join up your content. This can be as straightforward as saying:
- This is important because…
- If this happens, then…
- Firstly, … Secondly, …
Sometimes you also need to give a bit of structure to your paragraphs. Apply the same methods you use for structuring a large document. Giving a tiny introduction and summary can help you stay on topic and make it clearer for the reader. Or repeat the topic of your section at the start of a paragraph, to help people remember why they’re reading this bit.
When readers don’t have to make an effort to follow your writing, they are able to focus more of their attention on what you’re telling them.
Use words people understand
Make sure your terminology isn’t losing people. Your “terminology” means the words and terms you’re using for a topic. Technical and uncommon words can easily lose readers if they’re not familiar with them. And simple things like including a quick explanation (like I have done for “terminology”) can save them getting confused or having to pause and look it up.
It’s important to know your audience and whether they will need an explanation. You might find that you don’t need to use the technical language if this is a one-off time. But if it’s likely to be useful for them to know or will make the writing much easier, take the time to write a quick explanation.
The same goes for acronyms. TLAs (three-letter acronyms) are amazingly popular in business and technology. There’s nothing wrong with them when they’re used correctly. Too often though they are not defined and send the reader off to Google. Before using an acronym you need to know if it is common knowledge and unique. If not, define it (see my example with the TLAs above). Generally, you can just define acronyms once when you first use them.
You can also be kind to the reader by being careful with how you name things. For example, don’t say “Salesforce” if your company uses multiple applications from that company. Be specific and say “Salesforce Commerce Cloud” or “Salesforce Marketing Cloud”. But most importantly, be consistent. If you’ve started off using a phrase, name or acronym, keep using it the same way.
If you link your content together, right down to the sentences, and you make sure readers know exactly what your words mean, they will find your writing far easier to read.
Make every sentence clear and simple
What about the real magic: writing simply? It’s not easy but it can be learned through practice. And you will find it makes your writing more effective and powerful.
Here are some guidelines you can use to help get started.
Use shorter sentences. Long sentences are often a sign that your structure is wrong. If you’re struggling to break up longer sentences you may need to add in a few extra words to clarify how the sentences connect. And there’s nothing wrong with starting sentences with these words: “and”, “but”, “or”.
Use simple words. Don’t say ‘initialise’ when you could say ‘start’. Traditional business language tended to use long, latinate words. We often assume this sounds more intelligent. But it’s the quality and content of what you do that will impress others. That said, if a complex word is commonly used and your audience is familiar with it, you may find it’s best to use it. What is ‘simple’ will depend on your audience.
Focus on verbs. I think one of the best ways to simplify your writing is to focus on verbs. This will also help your analysis, as they make you ask ‘how’ something gets done. Two main things to do with verbs are:
- Write using the active voice. In process flows we normally write tasks in the format verb-noun, e.g. “Activate account” or “Process order”. This is good practice for writing generally. For example “the reports are processed” is passive (and we can’t tell how it’s done) but “the administrator processes the reports” is active. You can find a short but clear explanation here. This also explains some times when the passive voice might be more useful.
- Avoid nominalisations. Nominalisation is where we turn a verb into a noun. They add words and make sentences more complex. For example “analysis allows the confirmation of assumptions” uses a nominalisation and could be better written as “analysis confirms assumptions”. This page explains them more and has some exercises to help spot them.
One final thing to note about the active voice. Often, to write effectively in the active voice you will need to use a singular pronoun for a generic person. E.g. you are talking about someone else and you don’t know their gender. Use ‘they’ for this. It’s commonly used now and is correct English. Using ‘he/she’ is harder to read and alternating ‘he’ then ‘she’ in examples is harder to write. If you want to always default to ‘he’ – don’t. It’s old-fashioned, risks offending some of your readers (never good), and perpetuates unconscious bias. Good writing isn’t just about being easy to read. Our values and the quality of the content must also shine through.
Tell stories and give examples
Don’t feel that you have to write in abstract, generalised terms, like some kind of businesslike robot. Using specific examples or storytelling skills can make some topics far clearer. In Agile ways of working it’s the preferred tool.
Thinking in stories is a good way to help yourself be more structured in your writing. They have a beginning, middle and end. Causality is clearer in stories, where one thing happens because of another.
You can also use worked examples. Having specific values or decisions to discuss often helps make ideas much clearer. These can be written quite casually or you might want to try the gherkin format to help you structure them.
For readers used to formal and distant business analysis writing, you might want to introduce your storytelling more gradually.
3.2 So is your writing readable?
Writing very simply is hard and it’s harder still when you write about complex topics. Luckily, there are tools out there to help you.
- Readability tools will check how easy your writing is to read. I like Readable for getting a quick and clear rating.
- Bookmark this guide from the UK government and come back to it regularly. You can’t learn it all at once but it’s a brilliant guide.
- When in doubt, read it out loud. I keep repeating this but many writing problems are easier to spot and fix when speaking. Most of us have more practice speaking than writing.
3.3 Use formatting and visuals to support your writing
I love a well-written paragraph but it’s not always the best solution. Visuals and other BA tools, such as diagrams, can often be more effective than words. And there are also some commonly overlooked ways to simplify large chunks of text using basic formatting.
Structure text with headings
Your plan for the document structure should make the headings you need easy to identify. Keep them short and clear. They will make your document more accessible and allow you to include a table of contents. Readers will thank you when they can skim through and find exactly the section they’re looking for.
Don’t underestimate the power of lists. At the simplest level, they give readers something to easily point at and they break up the page. Lists can also be helpful to you the writer. They help structure your ideas into bite-sized chunks and don’t need so much connective writing.
A wall of words can be offputting. Instead, bullet lists look simple and leave more space around them. How the page looks really does matter. Images, diagrams and lists, break up the wall of words and give your readers a change of pace.
Numbered lists are best if there is an order or sequence to the items. They are also great if your readers might want to refer to a specific item. It’s easier to say “point 1 in the list” than read out the item. And there’s something powerful about lists of three, so use this to give your writing impact.
Personally, I love a bullet list and it’s my go-to tool for simplifying my writing. There are two risks though. Remember how I said we often forget to link content together for the reader? Well, bullet lists can have this problem too, if they aren’t clearly introduced. And another risk if that we can start indenting lists, like so:
This quickly becomes really hard to follow. I think that if you’re going more than three indents in, you probably need a different tool. Consider a grid or process flow instead. Or maybe that content needs a bit more space to explain and you should consider using headings and full paragraphs, to make it clearer to read.
Lots of complex ideas are much easier to explain in visuals and diagrams. Consider these as options:
- Matrixes, grids and decision trees for showing different options or combinations. Complex logic is better shown in these than in writing.
- Flow diagrams. I love a flow diagram. Even a simple one can just break up your text and give a memorable visual for readers to work with.
- Screenshots or even screen recordings. You can often embed videos as well as images in your documents.
Depending on the audience and your skillset, there may be other visuals you can include. Data models, system architecture diagrams, use cases and rich picture diagrams can all be helpful. Just consider first if your readers will understand them. And remember to write any introductions or linking text that’s needed to explain why you’ve included an image.
One important thing to do when you use visuals is to make sure they’re accessible to everyone. Alt text images and diagrams where necessary. Include embedded documents or links to originals so that users can explore them with screen readers where needed. If the document is a one-off and you are certain your readers won’t need this, you may want to skip this. But if your documentation is going to stick around, making it accessible will improve the inclusivity of your workplace.
Beware of too much formatting
I’ve left formatting such as bold, italics, underline, and colour to the very end. This is because they’re generally not that helpful. Sometimes they even make your writing harder to read.
Using text formating can feel like a quick and easy way to draw attention to key points and help the reader. Like many quick and easy solutions, it’s not always a good idea. Underlined and italic text is much harder to read if you have dyslexia or a visual impairment. 1 in 10 people have dyslexia so making your writing accessible to them will have a big impact on how successful your documents are.
Colour has a whole bunch of problems. Firstly, many people still print things in black and white. Secondly, colour blindness is very, very common. Around 1 in 12 people are colour blind. Unless you’re confident with using colours accessibly, it’s best to be careful.
If you’re trying to draw someone’s attention, use just bold formatting or combine bold formatting with a colour. Does your document look horribly boring in black and white? Then use colours in your headings or try adding some images.
Using your whole toolkit to enhance your writing doesn’t mean throwing everything in all at once. Keep your writing goals and audience clearly in mind. But these tools don’t have to be a last-minute addition. Often a well-chosen image or worked example will save a lot of writing time for you.
Bringing it all together
We’ve been through a lot here. Working out what your writing needs to do, creating a structure, and then picking the right tools and words to make sure you’re understood. Some might have been familiar while hopefully other parts gave you new ideas. I’ve outlined some of the key ways I go about this and the most useful tips I’ve learned for improving my writing.
You don’t need to do it all in one go. And you don’t need to get it correct the first time.
A document has three phases: plan, draft and final. For large documents, each phase might be a separate version. But you can quickly iterate through them too for small bits of writing. This is how I think about even many of my emails: plan what am I trying to say and how will I do it, a quick burst of writing, and then a last check to tidy it up.
And while you can’t perfect it all at once, you can aim for continuous improvement. This means you need to become your own editor. Or invite others to help with constructive feedback. I know I’ve not written this perfectly but I hope it’s pretty clear and helpful. Please let me know if you can see constructive ways to make it better though.
If it seems like a lot of effort, just think of this – when you write clearly, people don’t ask for follow-up meetings so often.