Better Writing for Data Analysts

You're a brain. You know your stuff. When you write a report, you put your heart into it. When it's complete, you know it's chock full of valuable information. There's just one problem: Other people don't get it. They don't see what you see.

What's the problem? It just might be your writing style.

When you understand data and its implications, you want others to see what you see. How frustrating it can be when decision makers ignore or misunderstand the information you've developed for them. When your reports aren't taken seriously, it's more than frustrating -- it's career limiting. If the boss doesn't find your reports valuable, the boss doesn't find you valuable. Persuasive writing is a survival skill for data analysts.

Good writing depends on good structure. Reports, whether they're the length of a memo or an encyclopedia, need a strong overall structure to guide the reader to relevant information and clarify the relationships among the facts that you present. Good sentence structure helps readers understand details.

When you've been pouring your life into a project, you can become so familiar with it that it's easy to forget how much others don't know. Technical experts often leap into specifics without giving the reader enough guidance to appreciate the significance of their results.

You must provide readers with structure to help them understand what you write. They need to know what to expect and how the information will be organized. Since people aren't always perfect at understanding and remembering what they read and hear, they also need a bit of repetition. You may have heard that, when you write or speak, you should tell them what you're gonna tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. I find that people need a little more structure than that. Here's what I recommend.

  • Opening: Get their attention.
  • Introduction: Briefly explain the issue and the information that will follow.
  • Thesis: Explain how the information will be presented.
  • Body: Provide the information in a simple, orderly way.
  • Conclusion: Summarize the main points you've made.

You won't end up with a well-structured document if you write everything off the top of your head. Get in the habit of outlining. Begin by making notes about the points you want the reader to understand. Then develop an outline that provides background and gets your points across. Outline the document as a whole, and then do the same for every topic you discuss -- each topic should have its own introduction, body, and conclusion.

Technical folks often write sentences like this: "The research phase investigated coupons as proposed by the research committee and redeemable by consumers at retail outlets." Vile, isn't it? But it's not your fault. They encouraged you to write that way in graduate school. Still, you have to move on now. Write simpler sentences. Keep them short. Write just one idea per sentence.

Give more thought to the structure of each report you write. Make outlines before you write. Simplify your sentences. These few things will make your reports easier to read and understand. And when the boss understands your message, you'll find your message has more impact.

Share your tips for writing good reports below.

Meta S. Brown, Business Analytics Consultant

Meta S. Brown is a consultant, speaker, and writer who promotes the use of business analytics. A hands-on analyst who has tackled projects with up to $900 million at stake, she is a recognized expert in cutting-edge business analytics. She has conducted more than 4,000 hours of presentations about business analytics, and written guides on neural networks, quality improvement, statistical process control, and many other statistical methods. Meta's seminars have attracted thousands of attendees from across the US and Canada, from novices to professors.

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Re: it's not all about the data
  • 1/29/2013 4:21:43 PM

You can certainly read online or in books and learn about writing. I've learned a lot that way, and of course, there would have been no point in writing the article if you couldn't learn from it.

Sooner or later, we all must write something, let people read it and give us some feedback. Some of that feedback should come from real, live professional teachers. I'd like to think we could all get that as part of our regular schooling, but often we don't. I don't believe online classes can make up the slack unless they are accompanied by an army of live teachers to read and criticize papers and presentations. For learning communication skills, I suggest conventional adult ed, corporate training, speaker's club and other time-tested methods. And practice - lots and lots of practice.

Re: it's not all about the data
  • 1/29/2013 3:47:21 PM

Meta, I agree. I've learned more from professional in media about communication than in a dedicated technical coure. I think an analytics professional would beenfit not only from learning style, but also seeing how other professionals and , frankly, people communicate. I've met people that really do not want a dashboard, just the end story with bullet points on what is needed.  In some cases it is more important to learn how to listen to people's communciation style than to do a graduate course.  

I also wonder if many communication concerns are now being addressed with online courses such as Udemy rather than an outright course.

Re: it's not all about the data
  • 1/28/2013 7:56:42 PM

I'm reluctant to suggest a graduate course in editing for technical fields. For one thing, who's going to teach it, college professors in technical fields? Have you read what they write?

My feeling is that it would be more productive for technical people to invest time and effort in taking conventional training in English composition, non-fiction writing, business writing and public speaking.

Re: Writing & reading
  • 1/28/2013 7:39:29 PM

Beth - I agree with your comment title. Writing and reading do go together. The people I know who read a lot of good stuff end up writing well, while the ones who read crap (or hardly read anything at all) produce those horrendous LinkedIn profiles you mentioned.

Re: it's not all about the data
  • 1/28/2013 7:34:59 PM

In that case, Meta, do you think there's room for a diploma/graduate course on editing for those in technical fields? It seems that a person with those credentials can fetch a good salary given the skills shortage.

Re: Writing & reading
  • 1/28/2013 5:06:43 PM

Or, more to the point, we could look at LinkedIn profiles, meant to be professional. Some of those are truly frightening. 

Re: Writing & reading
  • 1/28/2013 5:03:07 PM

Have a look at some YouTube comments and let me know if you think that will help improve the standard of writing skills.

Re: Writing & reading
  • 1/28/2013 4:55:31 PM

Do you think the problem will get worse or better as people rely more and more on digital communications for everyday conversation? Will we become better or worse at the written word with the practice we get out on the social web, for example? Hmmm.

Re: Writing & reading
  • 1/28/2013 1:31:48 PM


It's an evil cycle - our professors and our bosses are lousy writers, and they demand that we write just like them. So technical people are trained into writing dense techno-babble and never recover. Then they train the next generation to write more of the same crummy stuff.

Re: it's not all about the data
  • 1/28/2013 1:28:02 PM

Noreen, you are so write about the value of a good editor! But not many writers have access to a good editor.

I'm in the midst of a major consulting project for a firm of very sophisticated analysts who need to improve the quality of their reports. Working on a tight time frame, they don't have time to familiarize an outsider on their business - so only someone who knows their highly specialized trade can offer meaningful help. That's a common problem, one that many organizations face.

The rarety of editors with technical knowledge makes it particularly important for technical people to develop good writing skills.

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