Why you should start at the end, and why we don’t


Thomas Heath / 2010

Remember science at school? That’s where I learned to dice rats, mix volatile substances, handle electric shocks and melt biros with a Bunsen burner. It’s also where most of us were conditioned to save the main point until last.

Writing up experiments was always the same: start with objectives, talk through the method (saying ‘this was done’, never ‘I did this’), set out the results, analyse them and … finally … give your conclusion. It was similar but more vague for essay subjects: start by saying what you’re going to say; say it, then say what you’ve said.

This format is ideal for Teacher, who already knows the conclusion and wants to see how well you’ve understood.

(Heath! See me about the Bunsen burner…)

But in the real world our reader won’t know the answer until we tell them. And they need to be told at the start, so they can make sense of everything else we say. For example, by stating your conclusion that X is best at the start of your document, the reader can see that what follows is the proof that X is best.

The problem’s easily fixed with a quick cut & paste to move your conclusion up to the start.

But it’s a hard habit to break. School has set the template most of us use to plan documents, with the answer at the end and all workings shown. Think of insurance claim resolution letters. The bit we want to read – do I or don’t I get paid? – sits at the end of a vast essay explaining, so diligently, how the decision was made.

School is where we learned to read and write. But it’s time the professional world noticed we’re not writing for Teacher any more.

Thank you Jon Moon for the idea that led to this post.