Many of my clients write reports and opinions that are fairly long. How much information or detail to include is always an issue for them, and it’s one they frequently ask me about. Unfortunately, there is no simple, or “right”, answer.
That said, at the risk of sounding flippant, I usually tell them the rule of thumb is they should include “just enough” information. Of course, determining how much is “just enough” can be challenging, but if you put yourself in the place of the reader, you’ll be in a much better position to figure out what to include than if you just keep looking at it from the perspective of the writer. In other words, consider:
- what information the reader truly needs to know to understand the point you’re trying to make,
- what information (or understanding) the reader already has about the topic,
- the readers’ inherent interest in the information, and
- the amount of time the reader is able to invest in reading the document.
Assessing these things requires judgment. Furthermore, the determination can be even more complicated if the audience is diverse (as it often is).
If you find you have a lot of valuable information but you believe not every reader in your target audience will want, or need, the same level of detail, consider whether some of the information might be suited for appendices or schedules. (For the record, I am neutral as to whether you call something an appendix or schedule. It seems, or at least some clients have argued, that in certain fields or industries one term is more commonly used than the other. My view is you should use whatever label you think appropriate.)
So, for example, if you’re reporting on the results of tests or research your firm did, the body of the report must include enough detail for members of your target audience to understand the project and how you reached the conclusions you did. Additional information, for example, details about the tests you carried out or the data you used or analyzed can be included in an appendix.
I find what the Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says about the content of an appendix helpful:
“An appendix may include explanations and elaborations that are not essential parts of text but are helpful to a reader seeking further clarification, texts of documents, long lists, survey questionnaires, or sometimes even charts or tables. The appendix should not be a repository for odds and ends that the author could not work into the text.”
If you use appendices or schedules, however, keep in mind that readers may well (or, in some cases, likely will) ignore them. Shocking, I know! But the reality is, many readers won’t read them. So, if you have something important to say — or that you think the reader should know — it must be in the main body of text.
And finally, a few words about glossaries. Glossaries usually contain definitions of terms (or abbreviations) used in the text. Like appendices and schedules, glossaries are meant to provide useful information for readers. But, having to constantly refer to a glossary to figure out what a term means is often more annoying than helpful, so include glossaries only if they’re really necessary. And remember — inclusion of a term in a glossary isn’t meant as a substitute for explaining the term in the main text.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) offered advice* for companies using glossaries in disclosure documents that I think is appropriate for any writer considering including a glossary:
- avoid frequent reliance on glossaries or defined terms as the primary means of explaining information, and
- use a glossary only if it facilitates understanding of the disclosure.