PJ’s Notes to good writing

In 2015 or so, I wrote this set of 10 points about good writing for my Strategic Planning officers, when I was a middle manager in the Singapore Economic Development Board’s Strategic Planning team. It was meant to be a teaching tool, because I was tired of repeating myself.

It should be noted that this was about official/business writing, not about blogging or literature.

I recently rediscovered it, and was surprised by how concise and still pertinent it is. So I’m sharing it here, in the hope that this could be helpful for people. Please feel free to use it & share it, with or without attribution. (Jan 2024)

How to frame & structure your arguments

We often tend to write/relate in a narrative chronological way. However, there are certain best practices within EDB (which I’ve learned the hard way):

  1. Always put your most important point first. Principals don’t always read the whole thing, so state your point/reason upfront, before explaining with more details etc.

    For e.g. “This email is to update Director i3 (PJ: old designation in EDB) about XYZ project, and to seek Director’s concurrence to award a deviation” or “This email is to update AMD(PJ: Assistant Managing Director, an old designation in EDB) on the latest situation, and to provide possible courses of action for AMD’s consideration.”

    Another way of thinking about is to state upfront what do YOU (the writer) want from the Reader. Usually, writing is for a few reasons (which sometimes combine):

    a. For approval/support – Technically, approval can only made by an approving authority. Support is by someone higher than you who supports your recommendation.

    b. For information & update – When no decision is required, and you’re just updating for info. Always consider if the person needs to know what you’re going to tell him/her.

    c. For comment or advise – When you need the reader to advise you or give her two cents’ comment as an input.

  2. Your most important point should address why the reader should give a damn. Otherwise you might lose your reader with the first sentence. If you read it, and ask yourself “so what?”, come up with another way to make it clearer s.t. there’s no “so what?” question that follows.  In McKinsey, a favourite question is supposedly “What’s the ‘so what’?”, meaning the work seems to miss the main point.

  3. Use certain “logical” flows to structure the entire piece of writing:

    a. Big to small (e.g. explaining macro economics before going into specific industry dynamics)

    b. PCAN (Problem, Cause of Problem, Answers, how your answers provide a Net positive outcome)

    c. why-what-how

    d. background-update-next-steps

    e. background-issue-assessment-recommendation

  4. Related to above, if you re-read your writing & arguments, keep asking yourself “why?”, “why?”, “why?”. At least 3 whys helps to sharpen a lot of the bad writing I’ve seen. As a general rule, if you still can’t see why you should read a piece of writing after asking “why” three times, it’s probably not worth reading.


  1. Tenses should be consistent throughout the same piece of writing. Perhaps the most frequent tense used is the present perfect (“I have been an idiot”) and past tense (“I was an idiot”). If you’re talking about the same subject, try not to switch tense unnecessarily.

  2. Avoid unnecessary words & convoluted sentences. If a sentence stretches beyond three lines in an A4 sheet, it’s probably two lines too long.

  3. Explain all acronyms whenever you first use them in the writing (“The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (‘NATO’) threatened nuclear war on sparrows.”), unless the acronym is clearly understood by the intended reader (e.g. an Army colonel will understand SAF), in which case you can just use the acronym directly.

  4. Humour in writing, like salt in cooking, is best used sparingly and shouldn’t distract from the main message: if it’s easily noticed, it’s possibly too much. Use of irony is dangerous, while flippant sarcasm is potentially deadly, since the written word lacks the nuance of human facial expressions.

  5. Adopt a neutral and objective tone in your writing: unbalanced passion can result in a loss of credibility due to the perception of a lack of objectivity. It’s important to differentiate between personal bias & opinion vs. considered analysis: the former should be reserved for post-work drinks, while the latter is strictly the domain of official writing.

  6. Part of neutrality and objectivity is to account for probability in one’s writing. To quote Benjamin Franklin, “except for death and taxes”, few things in life are absolutely certain. Hence many things that “could” occur (including your recommendations) often don’t: the only thing that “will” happen is one’s eventual demise…