The Little Red Writing Book
by by Mark Treddinick

ISBN: 0 86840 867 0 Publisher: University of New South Wales Press (2006)
Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*

Writing a board report is occasionally satisfying, delightful when it is done, and nerve-wracking when it is half complete (especially if the word count has already been exceeded) and nowhere near saying what you wanted it to say. Doing the exercises in this book are fun, delightful when half way through and when completed, and still satisfying days and months afterwards. So where is the connection between the two?

The Little Red Writing Book is unashamedly a manifesto for great writing; for writing that communicates with commitment, certainty, character and confidence. It is written by a poet. Nobody could be better at finding the precise words to convey the exact meaning. That is exactly what I, as a director, want from my board papers!

The book gives lots of examples of clear, action-oriented writing and plenty of examples of lousy, obtuse, soporific waffle. Unfortunately many of the good examples come from literature and many of the bad ones from (you guessed it) business. In many places the book shows how to reword a piece of drivel and turn it into a sentence that will allow even the dopiest director to grasp the meaning immediately and formulate a resolve to do something as a result. The transformations are inspirational.

There are many great books on business writing but this one is different; it starts from the premise that writing is akin to conversation, necessary, enjoyable and emotional. Then there are the exercises: these allow the reader/writer to practise the techniques and develop their own unique and effective style. Once you have a style you can exercise and apply it in any circumstance. My productivity increased after reading the book. Yours will do likewise.

Of course, like an important board paper, this book is not just an inspirational read; it requires you to invest time and effort, to think about the content, and, eventually, to take action. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing exercises. They are so different from my work that they scarcely felt like work; but they did work - my writing got better, faster, clearer and more decisive.

My reading (for pleasure - not board related) got a little more eclectic as the book introduced me to authors whom I had not previously encountered. The author prefers no particular style or school of writing. There are simile-rich lyrical pieces and adjective-free adrenaline-soaked terse reports that have a 'coal-face feel' which is often lacking when managers sit down to write. There is definitely something here to improve the best and the worst of writers. A small improvement to board papers could make a genuine difference to the quality of board decisions. I should recommend the book for that reason alone. But I don't. I recommend it because I enjoyed it. I hope you will enjoy it also.

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* Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of "Presenting to Boards", Dilemmas, Dilemmas: Practical Case Studies for Company Directors, "The Director's Dilemma", "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance.