The write stuff: Why you need to BLUF, not BLAB

Janet Arrowood

Effective writing in the business world depends on getting your most important point, request or requirement across immediately. It might be nice to tell a story with examples, processes, research and theories. But your audience wants the bottom line up front (BLUF), not the bottom line at the bottom (BLAB).

How do you make sure you BLUF? The subject of your email or memo or first couple lines of your document should address the what, how much and how many you’re writing about. You can then support this with the how as well as the when, where, who and why.

Think of BLUF this way. If you had to cut all but one sentence in whatever you wrote, which sentence would you keep? It’s usually your bottom line. Put that one sentence at the beginning or in the subject line of your email or memo. Then choose no more than 50 to 100 words to support, justify or explain. You now have an effective subject line and paragraph or two that conveys the importance and urgency of what you’re writing about.

Not putting the BLUF usually results in BLABing. When you wend your way through approaches, processes and other supporting information before getting to your bottom line, you’re BLABing — beating around the proverbial bush rather than getting to the heart of what you want or need.

Here are some more tips for more effective writing:

Identify and write for the right audience. Too many documents are written for the author or author’s supervisor. That approach is fine if you’re writing a performance appraisal, but not if you’re writing a proposal, request for proposal or technical manual. If your audience doesn’t see the value for themselves in what you’re writing, you might get no response, the wrong response or lots of requests for clarification. Always ask yourself — and your supervisor — who is this email or document really for? What do we want to happen as a result of this audience reading the document? Will our needs and wants be clear in a single reading to the intended audience?

Use spelling and grammar checkers. If you’re using the latest versions of Microsoft Word, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover the system editor has become smarter. Assuming you haven’t disabled the spelling and grammar checkers found in the editor function, you’ll find many errors and wordy or convoluted sentences and phrases are identified as you type. If you tend to use the phrase “as well as” when you mean “and,” the editor will ask you if you want to use  “and.”  If you’re enamored of the phrase “make utilization of,” the editor will probably suggest changing the phrase to “use.”

Spelling and grammar checkers remain fallible, however. If you use a unique term, the editor could get confused and want you to change the term. If you have misspelled something really badly, the editor might offer wrong alternatives. If you’re offered a word with which you aren’t familiar, look it up before accepting it.

If you don’t like the editor correcting as you write and you’ve disabled that function, run the editor when you’re done writing. You might want to turn on the readability feature to further enhance the benefits of using the editor.

Keep it simple and short (KISS). Make your messages as clear and concise as possible. Short, focused sentences and single-topic paragraphs are easier to read. Your audience won’t have to stop and ask, “What did the author mean by this statement? What does the author want from me?” You’re less likely to be ignored or misunderstood if you KISS.

Use active voice to clearly identify the “doer.” Active voice indicates the actor or  “doer.” The responsible parties and what they are to do, or did, is stated. Passive voice doesn’t state the actor and can be misunderstood. Passive voice encourages avoiding responsibility and failing to act.

How do you identify passive voice? You’ll often read “to be” or “to have” in a sentence. The actor or “doer” is either implied or stated at the end of the sentence. How do you change passive voice to active voice? Look for the implied or stated actor or “doer” at the end of the sentence and move it to the beginning of the sentence.

For example,  a sentence written in passive voice reads, “The commendation was written by the board chair.”
The same sentence written in active voice reads, “The board chair wrote the commendation.”

Effective written communications are essential to convey information and get the responses you need. I hope these tips help you become a more effective writer.