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Feeling overwhelmed by the job ahead? Annual reports can be seriously heavy-going documents.

Even the most professional writers and editorial of annual reports get overwhelmed – the only difference is, the professionals have tried and true techniques for getting themselves out from under it all.

Remember, you are the Editor and somebody has to make the decisions about what’s in the annual report. That’s you (or your boss). So you’re going to have to figure out how to say “no” to content that does not work.

Without further ad, grab a coffee and maybe a wee bit of chocolate and try these five ways out of writing overwhelm.
Grab a piece of paper. Or, if you’re comfortable using outline mode in Word (Office), save your current project as another version and switch over to outline mode.

1.  Structure and outline

  • Pull out the major headings. Just those. They are the important ones. They should look like a list of the major areas in which your organisation has operated this year. If there is something missing from this list, put it in and make it a major heading.
  • Systematically go through the main document and check that all subheadings, paragraphs, charts and pictures serve these main headings. Delete any that do not serve the main headings, or paste the material somewhere else until later, marked with a question mark
  • Identify which main headings do not have enough material under them. Write or source from contributors the missing information.

Feeling any better yet?

2. Break it down

Bring this project to heel – make it sit down and beg. Very likely, it is way too big and is about to become candidate for the ‘too big to succeed’ basket.

  • Often, your colleagues or boss will expect you to ‘just write the thing’, but it doesn’t work that way. (Don’t fall for the ‘just let me see the draft’ thing as it will almost always result in lots of red pen and recriminations) The document is written word by word, sentence by sentence, and there’s no way around it.
  • Make a mini-project plan that works within the larger project plan. You can share this with your team, depending on what works for you. Schedule into your calendar a day for doing section 1, a day for section 2 and so on. You can use this to pin others down: “Could we please talk about this tomorrow because I need to get Section 2 finished by Friday?”
  • Protect your mini-project from incursions, but don’t become a slave to it.
  • Work through the plan, bit by bit, giving yourself a pat on the back each time you complete a section

3. Make yourself a budget – in words

Many corporate annual reports run to more than 50,000 words and some to more than 100,000. We don’t believe it’s good practice to re-write ‘War and Peace’, but you do have to cover the strategic activities and results of your organisation in some depth.

You can use word count to your advantage and make a budget for it. Making a word budget has many advantages: you get a balanced view of how much attention you’re paying to the different topic areas, you get a feel for parts that are waffling or padded out, and the ability to pinpoint exactly what’s missing.

You can only fit a certain amount of words on an A4 page before it becomes unreasonable or unreadable. Talk to your graphic designer about giving you basic word count that works with the design.

  • Work out the total amount of words you are going to use, and divide them among the major headings
  • For sections that are problematic, break it down even further – you can go as far as words per sentence if you really like (!)

Stand back (metaphorically) from your annual report. Doesn’t look so bad anymore, does it?

4. Get help – introducing the email interview

It’s easy for colleagues to avoid doing their contributions – ahem – be too busy to get time to write anything – when you’re not in the same time and place. But sending them a series of well-structured questions makes the job easier. And almost impossible to excuse away.

  • Check that part of your problem is not a lagging key contributor or an uncommunicative or indecisive client. Often the source of the overwhelm is the tension between your role and its responsibilities and the actions of someone else with some power. Even if you can’t negotiate directly with them, at least identifying the problem can let you separate it out from the rest of the tasks.
  • For laggers, try the email interview. Pick out  the key section that the lagger is supposed to be writing. Write a series of open-ended questions about it in an email. Allow them to respond in bullets if they like – a lot of the time people get bogged down in the composition of something, not in the information-provision
  • Without begging and get upset, be assertive for the annual report – make it about the annual report, not about you, then making a stand about it is not so hard. The annual report needs you, you say.

5. Kill your darlings

Sounds horrible and wrong, doesn’t it? It’s an old writers’ and editors’ expression meaning ‘if you get too attached to certain words, phrases, stories or passages, they’re probably irrelevant and slowing down or distorting the whole document’.

Cut them out, pretty them up and give them their own web page; file them for another time.

That’s it. See how you go. If you get stuck, email Jenny at jennylmackinnon@reportmachine.com.au

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