by Gary Blake, Director
The Communication Workshop

In a survey of more than 800 claims adjusters, examiners,
and workers’ compensation professionals as well as Special Investigation Unit people
and customer service professionals, about half indicated that “writing the first
sentence” gave them more trouble than any other writing problem.

If the people surveyed reflect the more than 100,000 people
in these areas of insurance, “claims writer’s block” is a serious threat to
the productivity and efficiency of every claims department.

Imagine each one of these 100,000 souls sitting in front of
a terminal and spending as much as a half-hour before writing the first sentence of a
letter! Despite the reasons for this “warm-up” period, a major brain drain is
occurring. And it may occur again the next time you have to write.

Just what are the reasons why claims people are
“blocked” in their desire to knock out a denial or reservation of rights letter,
a letter to an opposing attorney or to house counsel, a letter to a commissioner or a
letter to a physician requesting information?

As someone who has worked with hundreds of claims professionals to improve their
writing, I believe that their writer’s block stems from three main sources:

1) The desire to not “look foolish on paper.”
If you weren’t exactly the star of your 12th grade English class, or
avoided writing classes throughout your education, you may have a lingering belief that
you are not a good writer. Therefore, you may still be a bit iffy about everything from
where commas belong to what constitutes a long sentence or paragraph. You may be prone to
using the wrong word or to letting your emotions dictate the organization and phrasing of
your letters, e-mail, and reports. Since you don’t want to be caught in the act of
making a foolish error you put off the task of writing.

2) The desire to please your boss. While mathematics
is concrete, what constitutes “effective” writing is open to interpretation. No
one would dream of phrasing letters like they were phrased in 1850. Yet many managers
still carry a formality and stodginess that was acceptable 50-75 years ago. While writing
seminars push for “plain English,” simplicity and relative informality, the
corporate culture into which you are trying to fit may encourage you to depend on phrases
like “enclosed please find,” “under separate cover” and “above
captioned claim.” This stylistic schizophrenia makes many claims people confused and
a bit scared, leading to procrastination.

3) Lack of training. As mentioned in reason number
one, people who haven’t taken any type of writing training in quite a while may be
stopped in their tracks because they don’t have that built-in “radar” that tells trained
business writers how to organize information or how to separate fact from opinion. Unless
you’ve updated and polished your writing skills, it may take you too long to figure
out whether to use a semicolon or colon or how to clear away the deadwood of extra or
vague words from long or muddy sentences. In other words, without any feedback on how you
write, you may be going along thinking that your writing is clear and concise – even
if you labor over your letters–because no one has pointed out exactly where your letters
could stand improvement.

What to do?

Let me share a few tips on breaking through writer’s
block. Short of taking a writing seminar or reading books on writing, a blocked claims
adjuster can break through writer’s block in these three ways:

1) Prepare yourself by focusing on your reader.
Whenever I am blocked, I ask myself questions that keep focusing me on the purpose and reader of the document:

  • Who is my reader?A claimant? An angry opposing
    attorney? A commissioner who expects a dispassionate recital of the facts of a claim?

  • Who else is likely to read what I’ve written? Be
    careful: Will an offhand remark zing your reader? Or might it zing you when an opposing
    attorney gets his hands on the file?

  • What do I want the reader to know, do, or believe as a
    result of my communication? Are you, for example, offering a final settlement or subtly
    suggesting that the door is still open for more negotiation?

2) Understand how to organize information.
Let’s make things simple: most of the time you write, you are passing along
information. Your objective is to lay out that information in a clear, logical, easy-to
follow way. If you were writing to persuade, your focus would be more about satisfying the
reader’s needs than it would be about getting to the point and preparing the reader
for the letter’s flow of ideas.

When I think of organization, I think of a five step
sequence that helps me arrange my thoughts: Summary (Telling the reader the main
“news” quickly — the point of why you are writing); Background (Any
details that you feel are needed regarding past events or explanations); Findings
(The issue at hand: perhaps an objective rendering of the facts of the claim; Conclusions
(Your view, which has grown organically out of the Findings); Recommendations (the
outcome of the conclusion: e.g., “Since chipmunks, like other rodents, are not
covered in your policy, we cannot cover the claim involving your swimming pool cover.”)

This general way of viewing informative messages helps you
get to the point and helps you “walk the reader through” your ideas and how they
lead to the recommendation (e.g. to deny a claim). This format will become second nature
after a while and it does reinforce the asking – and answering — of the question posed earlier:
“What do I want my reader to know, do, or believe as a result of my communication?”

3. Get in touch with your ideas; then, organize them
(Don’t do both at once).
Have you ever noticed that whenever you
start chatting about a favorite subject the words just flow? The thoughts are clear,
dynamic, colorful, and use facts, narrative, examples, and words drawn from others? Yet,
we “choke up” when we write! To combat that, get in touch with the thoughts you
have by first pretending that the person you are writing to suddenly entered your office!

To warm up, say to yourself: “I called you into my
office because I wanted to tell you that…” This may stimulate you to jot down
the idea that comes to mind first, even if it isn’t, ultimately, the most vital
thought. By using this concept, you free yourself to start letting thoughts flow until you
reach a point where you are satisfied that–despite the stream of consciousness–you have
covered what you wanted to cover. Now, as a second step, pull your thoughts together. What
thoughts are truly a summary of the key message? Which are mere background thoughts? In
other words, now you can use the informative sequence to make the thoughts flow from one to the other.

The best writing, it seems to me, is a combination of the
natural conversational way we speak meshed with the logical confines of some type of outline or pattern
of organization (this can include most important to least important, chronological, spatial).

Notice that the organizational pattern I mentioned earlier
(Summary, Background, Findings, etc.) is similar to chronological, but first asks you to
summarize the main thoughts before leading the reader through the details. Or, in
the words of the preacher who was asked how to give a sermon: “I tell ’em what I’m going to tell ’em;
I tell ’em; and then I tell ’em what I told ’em.”

One immediate result of this type of organizational
mind-set , aside from breaking through the writer’s block, will be that your first
paragraph will truly scope out the whole message instead of just being a long wind-up
before getting to the point. For example, here’s a paragraph written by someone before
he learned ways to break his block and to organize his thoughts before writing:

“I am writing in response to your letter dated
September 5, 2000. The June 26, 2000 letter from Daniel Hill was received June 30 and
answered on July 14, 2000. A copy of that response is attached. A copy of our letter to
Daniel Hill dated September 12, 2000, is attached and addresses the previous denials of
the wage and loss replacement services claims.”

Here’s how that same first paragraph was written by
the same person who had learned to become aware of the importance of serving up a more
substantive first paragraph and keeping the informal tone that makes writing come alive:

“I am writing in response to your October 7 letter,
prompted by a letter from Ms. Radley, in which you requested information about Ms.
Radley’s still-pending auto accident claim. The following will summarize how this
claim is being handled and which items are documented as well as the claim’s settlement.”

Now, that’s a paragraph that makes the reader
comfortable by laying out the whole message. The reader can now predict what information
will follow and in what order.  If every claims adjuster – or business writer–
could be trained to conquer writer’s block and emerge with a well-crafted first
paragraph, the savings in effort – on both the writer and the reader’s
time – would be vast, and the cumulative corporate savings would be astronomical.

GARY BLAKE, director of The Communication
Workshop, presents on-site seminars in Effective Writing for Claims Professionals at
insurance firms across the US, Canada, and UK. For more information, e-mail:
[email protected]; telephone: 516-767-9590; or visit
Dr. Blake’s Web site: