Synoptic assessments involve making connections between a wide variety of subjects.
It can be hard to know what to include, and what to leave out. So how do you tackle the writing elements of an assessment – and when you go on to be qualified, how do you write well as a professional?
“The temptation when writing an assessment is to put down everything you know,” says Jenny Hulme, a journalist who co-writes books with academic educationalists. “The trick is to stand back and imagine you’re being asked the question verbally. Consider how you would speak if you were talking in a café to someone – you wouldn’t start to info-dump on them, you would talk using examples.” Bear this in mind when you are writing assessments, Hulme says. ‘The assessor wants to hear your voice. You need information in there, but take care to present it in manageable and digestible ways. Having the confidence to allow your own voice makes it a more interesting read – and that will help you get better marks.”
Hulme offers an example. “If you were asked, “Why are tax credits so important?” you wouldn’t verbally say something like, ‘Tax credits were launched during the Blair/Brown governments in the 1990s and 2000s.’ But this is how people often write, Hulme says – and it’s a hindrance. “Instead, what you would actually say might be a variation on, ‘Tax credits top up people’s incomes to enable them to go into the workplace on lower paid jobs.’ By writing in this way, you cut out the info-dump and get to the heart of what you’re being asked about.”
Structuring your assessment is key
Know what question you’re trying to answer; find a way in to the argument; build that argument in manageable chunks; and back it up with quotes, references and examples. “The assessor wants to see not just that you’ve answered a question, but have understood it and can support it. So you make a point, then you back it up with a quote, and then you comment on that quote. It’s a useful discipline to go through the whole thing and ask yourself – have I done all that?
“Set out your stall at the beginning – then top and tail it to make sure you have covered what you need to cover. You can use formulas for this: ‘I want to show you how x, y and z works.’ Then you demonstrate to the reader what you mean; and you conclude with a round-up.” Especially when you are working long hours and feeling tired, this can be an invaluable device. “It makes it doable. Break it down into chunks of work, knowing that you can polish it later.”
For Hulme, there are powerful tips that can be taken from her journalism training. “I was taught to go out and find the answers to questions. It sounds simple but it’s a really helpful thing to remember. Studying can be a passive experience – you feel like you’re absorbing huge amounts of information. If you see yourself as a journalist – seeking the answers to questions – you can get results much more quickly and effectively than thinking, I have got to research an unmanageably large subject. It helps you focus, keeps you to the point and you notice the difference between what’s useful and what isn’t.”
What about when you have qualified, and when you go on to write as a professional?
“Many of the rules are still the same,” says Fiona McDonald, a consultant social worker and foster care practice assessor. “Know what the key point is that you want to make, and ensure that’s there from the beginning.” In other words, good writing is about good communication. “The writing has got to be factual, it has to stick to the point and it needs to be transparent. Make sure everything you say is legal, decent, honest and true.” Often when working with clients, accountants will be asked for their advice and opinions. A lot of tax law is open to interpretation – so it’s essential that your advice cannot be misinterpreted or simply misunderstood.
With that in mind, clarity of English is essential. Consider a recent case in which US dairy drivers claimed they deserved extra payments for tasks that they said should have been regarded as overtime. The company did not agree. In court, the case hinged on a misplaced comma – leading the judge to side with the employees. Whilst this is an extreme case, it’s a startling reminder of how important words and grammar can be and how essential it is to use them correctly in a professional environment.
“Know your audience,” McDonald advises. “You are the expert, but your client is not. So you always need to remember to avoid jargon, think from the client’s point of view, put things in terms they are going to comprehend unambiguously, and make sure you address the points they want you to address, rather than merely the points you want to make.”
Words, words, words
Finally, “when you’ve finished your assessment – or your piece as a professional – read it aloud,” says Jenny Hulme. “If there are things that need changing, or which don’t ring true, or which need further explanation, you’ll identify them when you read it out to yourself – or a friend, colleague or partner. It’s a great way to discover what you’ve actually said – as opposed to what you think you’ve said.”
Writing as a professional – top tips
- Avoid jargon. Communicate clearly, straightforwardly and comprehensively, but don’t use words that your audience is not going to understand.
- Know your reader. Who are you writing for? This will impact on your content. The assessor of an exam will want to see an understanding of what you’ve learnt, but that’s not going to be the most important thing to the client when you are a professional accountant.
- You can’t include everything. Don’t info-dump on the reader and make sure you have a readable, approachable ‘voice’.
- Be selective. “Smart pieces of writing are as much about what you leave out as what you put in,” says Jenny Hulme. “Use your knowledge to support the point or embellish it – but use it wisely.”
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.