The do’s and don’ts of brief writing for a policy-making audience

12th January 2021

Author: Leslie Villegas

So, you’ve decided to write a policy brief, now what? Policy briefs are a great way to use research as a call to action, but they diverge from traditional academic writing in several ways. Most prominently, policy briefs differ from other research products in that they sacrifice length and depth for succinct arguments that give the reader just enough information to believe the posited claim.

Before you start writing, keep the following in mind:

  • Make sure the problem you have identified can be addressed through policy action.
  • Remember that your audience is very narrow. You are writing for an individual policy maker, a group of policy makers, or what is usually the case, a staffer with direct access to the decision-maker. This target audience often lacks the luxury of time to read lengthy reports, which means that your policy brief needs to be structured and written in a manner that quickly grabs their attention and ultimately convinces them to take action.
  • Make sure you are clear about what your intent is – what is your goal or intended outcome for the reader when they are through reading?

Once you have concluded that policy makers can do something about the problem you have identified, your brief should establish a clear road map from problem to solution for your reader. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all outline for policy briefs, the following fundamental components can help you build a comprehensive and compelling call to action.

Key content and structure

What is the problem?

Your brief should start with a short summary of the issue you will be discussing where you can introduce your claim, i.e. what are you arguing in favour of or against? Keep in mind that the length of this introductory section will vary from brief to brief. That being said, be mindful of the length and keep it as minimalist as possible, including only the most critical points which you will elaborate on throughout the rest of the brief.

What background information is important for your reader to understand the context?

This is your opportunity to appeal to your audience as to why they should care. Tap into your strengths as a researcher as you summarise relevant literature or previous work that your reader should be aware of to make an informed decision. This is where you can define the scope of the problem, i.e. is it a national, state, or local issue? To the extent applicable, this should include a discussion about key stakeholders involved such as constituencies most affected either negatively or positively. Incorporating political dynamics that may affect the reader’s policy operating space can also bolster this section. This should include a nuanced discussion of both sides of the argument – who may be in support or against what you are proposing and why?

What evidence do you have to support your claim?

Once you feel you have sufficiently and succinctly defined the context and scope of the problem, what key facts and figures can you provide to support your claim? Again, this is a place for your research abilities to shine through by using either primary or secondary research to back up your claim and prove that there is, in fact, a problem. As with other research writing, ensure the data is as accessible as possible to eliminate the potential for the information to be misconstrued or misleading. Keep in mind that you risk losing your reader’s attention if your evidence is not communicated effectively and compellingly, so take time to reflect on whether your audience will connect with how you’ve chosen to present the data.

What can your reader do about it?

To the extent possible, your piece should be armed with practical actions that can be taken. Going back to your intent behind writing the brief, what can your reader do about the problem you have laid out and how can they apply the research presented to that aim? While policy makers and their aides are constantly presented with problems, they are rarely presented with actionable solutions.

Equally important to the content in your brief is how you choose to organise your information. Your brief should flow easily from one section to the next, with each section building on the information previously presented. How you structure your brief should keep the reader engaged in the story you are telling.

Clear, concise, and direct language

Use clear language and easily repeatable facts to help the information resonate with your audience. Additionally, in policy writing more broadly and with policy briefs specifically, nuanced language is key in presenting the information in a fair and balanced manner. When writing for a policy-making audience, less is more, which means you should aim to be concise with your use of words. Simple graphics and charts, as opposed to text-heavy descriptions, are an effective way to support your claim.

Lastly, unlike other forms of writing that are intended to be strictly factual, policy briefs are more direct about practical actions that should be taken to address an issue. Providing specific policy changes your reader can run with can be a powerful addition to your brief. This can be done by identifying the statute or regulation that needs to be changed, and/or detailing amendments that could be made to the law to accomplish the policy goal. The more detail here the better as it gives the decision maker a stronger starting point if and when they decide to take action.

If written correctly, your brief will tell a clear and compelling story. It will present your audience with enough information to make an informed decision on whether or not to act, arming them with research-informed policy solutions to real-world problems. This is not an easy feat, but how rewarding would it be to point to a law and know your brief had something to do with it?