Writing a Briefing Paper


Sound educational decision-making requires well-informed, well-advised decision makers. Yet, no decision maker has the time or resources to thoroughly research every issue confronting them. Briefing papers are one means of providing these decision makers with the information they need in a manner that fits their busy schedules.

A briefing paper is a concise summary of research findings, written for an informed, although not necessarily an expert, audience. Briefing papers are targeted toward a specific audience and for a specific purpose. Briefing papers update readers on an issue's current status and get readers up-to-speed on the background of an issue. Typically, briefing papers are presented as a four-page summary. Each paper reaches a clear conclusion based on evidence and concise argument. This tends to result in a pace of writing that could best be described as “swift”. Yet, coherency and substance are the hallmarks of a briefing paper. Carefully worded subheadings that point the reader to more detailed information and bulleted points that highlight quick overviews of essential information are two writing conventions that facilitate the swift style of the briefing paper.

General Guidelines

The challenge in writing a briefing paper is to be thorough but also succinct, and this requires a writer to judge what information to include and what to leave out. A writer must explain an issue in enough detail so that a reader gains a full understanding in a few pages (usually three to five pages).

Descriptive subheadings are useful for organizing a briefing paper because they force a writer to focus, and they enable readers to extract information quickly. To be useful to a reader, however, subheadings must be immediately understandable; they cannot leave a reader guessing as to their meaning.

Unlike op-eds or other journalistic pieces, a briefing paper need not entice the reader with juicy information, provocative statements, or descriptive language. Instead, briefing papers should simply lay out information and analyses in the clearest and most concise manner possible. Similarly, direct quotes from individuals are not used in a briefing paper unless the specific wording of the quote is important. Usually it is sufficient to state that X individual or organization "took the position that" the policy should or should not be supported.

Sections of a Briefing Paper

Briefing papers should have the following sections:

1. An Introduction/Issue Section: The introductory paragraph, often titled "Issue," is by far the most important part of a briefing paper. After reading the very first sentence of a briefing paper, the reader should have a clear idea of the subject and why it is important. The "Issue" section should give the reader a good overall sense of the issue at hand and present the most important message(s) of the briefing paper. If the reader does not have time to go through the whole document, the "Issue" section should provide enough information so the addressee, at a minimum, can go into a meeting knowing both the subject matter being discussed and the preferred outcome of the discussion.

2. Background Section: The "Background" section follows the "Issue" section of a briefing paper. Here the writer should provide enough background for the reader to understand the most recent developments. Though some readers may need a review of an issue's history, background sections should not be written as historical accounts. Accordingly, it is usually better to organize a paper around substance rather than chronology. A writer should decide what points to cement in the reader's mind and organize the paper around these points. Background sections reiterate points made in an issue section only when a writer wants to elaborate further. If no elaboration is necessary, there is no need to re-state a point.

You can help your reader understand your paper better by using headings for the summary and the discussion segments that follow it. Try to write headings that are short but that clarify the content of the segment. For example, instead of using "Summary" for your heading, try "New Rat-Part Elimination System," which is much more specific.

3. Closing Segment: Now you are almost done. After the reader has absorbed all of your information, you want to close with a courteous ending that states what action you recommend or want your reader to take. Begin with the information that is most important. This may mean that you will start with key findings or recommendations. For easy reading, put important points or details into lists rather than paragraphs when possible. Make sure you consider how the reader will benefit from the desired actions, and how they can make those actions easier.