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How to Write a Briefing Paper

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How to Write a Briefing Paper. A briefing paper outlines a particular issue and its background, usually for a government official or other policy maker. These decision-makers have to make hard choices about many different topics every day, and they do not have time to research each one in-depth. A briefing paper helps bring a single issue to someone’s attention and fills in key details he or she needs to know. It then proposes solutions and recommends improvements. Knowing how to write a briefing paper is a useful skill for students, business professionals, politicians and community activists. A persuasive briefing paper is concise, well-organized and covers the most important and relevant facts and solutions.

Mapping Out and Setting Up Your Paper

Determine the scope of the paper. 

The scope includes both the depth and breadth of the paper. How much detail will you go into? How many different topics will you cover? This will vary based on how much information you’re able to find as well as how much information you’ll need to include in order to support your claims.

  • Determining the scope of the briefing paper is important because it will allow the reader to know exactly what information is covered and what is not.

Know your audience.

Before you begin writing your briefing paper, it is important to consider who will be reading it. This will drive the choices you make throughout the document. Before you start, think about the following questions, and if you don’t know the answers, try to find out:

  • Who will read this paper? Government officials? Business executives? Journalists? Some combination of these?
  • How much does the audience already know about this issue? Do they know anything at all? What does the audience need to know?
  • What authority does the audience have over the issue? What changes are he/she/they capable of making?

Plan out key points.

Before you get started writing your briefing paper, you should map out, either mentally or in an outline, the key points you want to make.

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  • Because a briefing paper is typically only a page or two long, it needs to be condensed. Policy makers are very busy, and yours is not the only issue on their plates. There’s no room for unnecessary information or long-winded explanations. Decide on your key points in advance to craft a concise briefing paper.

Consider using a template.

While the formatting of a briefing paper isn’t overly complex, you can save yourself some time by downloading one of the many free online templates for creating briefing papers in MS Word.

  • A template can help you organize your thoughts and more quickly craft a briefing paper.

Create a name, date, and subject lines.

If you aren’t using a template, you ‘ll need to start setting up your paper by creating name, date, and subject lines.

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  • The name corresponds to the person to whom the briefing paper is addressed.
  • The date corresponds to the date on which the paper was submitted.
  • The subject line should describe in a few words the main topic of the briefing paper, such as “The Prevalence of Bullying in the North County School District.” This lets the reader know, without even skimming the document, the issue that will be addressed.

Consider a summary section.

Some briefing papers include a summary section at the start of the paper, summarizing the entire paper in a few bullet points. Decide whether you’d like to do this, and if so, set aside space for this section.

  • For a very busy reader, the summary offers the key points in advance, thus allowing skimming over of the rest of the document.
  • A well-crafted briefing paper is often concise enough that this section is unnecessary. However, for issues that require immediate action, this can be a way to highlight the urgency of the paper by clearly indicating the deadline within the summary.
  • The summary should be no more than three to four bullet points.

Describing the Issue

Craft an opening that summarizes the issue. 

The next part of the paper must describe the issue or problem in some detail. Start with a brief opening, usually labeled “issue” or “purpose” that describes in a sentence or two the main issue the paper focuses on and/or why you are submitting this paper.

  • For example, you might write something like: “Violent incidents related to bullying are on the rise in schools within the North County School District. Current disciplinary policies may not be adequate for addressing this issue.”

Outline the key facts/background.

The next section, labeled “considerations” or “background” should provide some detailed information about the state of the problem or issue, focusing on the recent development and/or current state of the situation.

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  • This section should include the information necessary for the reader to make a decision about this issue. Information not necessary for this purpose, however interesting it may be, should be excluded.
  • If you haven’t already, do some research before writing this section. You want the information in section to be as accurate, specific, and up to date as possible.
  • When necessary, translate the information for your audience to make this section clear and simple. Avoid jargon, technical language, or information that isn’t of central concern to the audience.
  • Use statistics and data as appropriate, but explain things in terms that your audience will be able to quickly and easily understand.

Keep your opinions out. 

Your views on this situation and/or what should be done about it should not appear in this section. Keep it strictly factual.

  • You may, however, choose to discuss the pros and cons of various proposed or current actions, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each

Offering Conclusions and Recommendations

Make it relevant.

Your briefing paper should wrap up with sections labeled “conclusion” and/or “recommendations” or “next steps.” This closing should make it clear why this issue should be considered important by your reader.

  • Try to link the issue directly to the reader’s self-interest to make your paper more persuasive.
  • For example, you might say something like: “Bullying related incidents are leading parents to consider private school options. They are linked to lower test scores and graduation rates, making our schools appear less effective in the eyes of the community. They reduce our district’s opportunities to supplement funding with federal and private grants.”

Propose a solution.

Many briefing papers will provide a proposed solution to the issue that has been described, linking the issue to a policy change aimed at improving the situation.

  • Some briefing papers will outline the proposed solution(s) in a section labeled “recommendations,” but some writers prefer “next steps,” believing this has a softer feel that is less presumptuous or aggressive. Remember that the reader will be the one who makes the final decision on this issue, not you.
  • This section need not be “balanced” as the background/considerations section was. This can be a place for you to express your view as to what should be done.
  • It should be noted, however, that you do not have to endorse a particular solution. You can also just lay out some options with their pros and cons, and simply urge the reader to consider these choices and take action of some kind to address the issue. You don’t necessarily specify which action would be most appropriate.

Use the facts to back your argument.

Your proposals in this final section should flow logically from the information presented in previous sections. Use the facts you have laid out to show why the solution you are proposing is a good one.

  • Make sure any solution you propose is clear and directly related to the issue as you have outlined it. For example, imagine you have highlighted the lack of bullying prevention programs in your previous section. Here, it will make sense to suggest such a program, and perhaps point to their effectiveness at other schools. If prevention programs haven’t already come up, a solution like this may feel like it came out of nowhere.

Editing the Paper

Cut it down.

A briefing paper should only be about two pages. If, after you are done, the paper is longer than this, your first pass through for editing purposes should look for places to cut it down.

  • Look for information that is off topic or less important and remove that material, especially if it doesn’t relate to the solution(s) you offer.
  • By the same token, make sure there aren’t key pieces of information missing that are necessary to make your argument clear and convincing. You may need to swap out one piece of information for another.
  • Try to put yourself in the shoes of a politician or bureaucrat as you edit. Think about how many pieces of information these individuals receive every day. Don’t contribute to the problem. Be part of the solution by providing the information necessary to make a decision–no more, no less.

Remove technical language. 

As you edit, keep an eye out for technical language or jargon that could make your paper less accessible. Even if you sought to avoid this in writing the paper, it’s possible that some challenging language made its way into the document.

  • Especially if you are an expert on a topic you are writing about, it’s easy to forget, at least momentarily, that language that is every day for you may be difficult for others to understand.
  • Keep in mind that it is likewise not always immediately obvious why something is important to people who aren’t already familiar with a topic. Policy makers usually can’t be experts on every topic they have to make decisions about.

Make sure the structure is logical.

Ensure that the key facts you have included flow logically from the issue, as you have summarized it. Be doubly certain that any solutions you propose address those key considerations as well.

Carefully proofread.

After dealing with the length and flow of the paper, give it one more careful look to ensure that it is free of all errors.

  • A paper with spelling, style, or grammatical errors may be taken less seriously by your reader. You may be doing more harm than good by submitting such a paper, as it may discredit your perspective.

Michael R Lewis, “How to Write a Briefing Paper (with Pictures) – WikiHow,” wikiHow (wikiHow, April 13, 2011), https://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Briefing-Paper.

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