Writing of Committee Minutes

In many ways, writing good minutes is an art form rather than an exact science. It takes much practice to evolve a style that satisfies everybody on the committee and offends no-one. Experience accepted, there are certain guidelines which are worth following if a secretary is not going to fall into lots of the better-known traps.

Many of the society minutes which find their way to Clarges Street are excellent, but unfortunately a significant number fall short of an ideal standard and it is easy to understand why complications arise or members complain to their Chairman when they read the minutes.

In the first instance, it never pays to put too much detail in a minute. In this sense, these should be ‘minutes’, not ‘hours’. They should not be too short that they read like a cryptic crossword clue otherwise after a time memory fails and there will be no clear recollection of the content of the discussion. Sufficient should be written to make the subject clear. Some additional detail may also need to be included if the subject was wide-ranging and, of course, the final decision must be recorded.

If at all possible, individuals should not be mentioned by name. Opinions voiced in committee should for the most part be anonymous. It is rarely necessary to minute the fact that Mr Brown said this and Mrs Smith said that. When this happens, invariably the minutes are circulated and someone takes offence over how their arguments were reported or interpreted. Much better to note the salient arguments that were brought out without attributing them to anyone in particular.

The style of minutes should be as bland and factual as possible. Civil service English tends to conjure up the image of dry, unimaginative prose. However, simple, plain language is much more acceptable than a flowery, wordy style, which can make one wonder whether the writer is using more imagination than memory.

Badly phrased minutes have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt a committee many months, or even years, after they were written. Good questions to keep asking oneself whilst drafting minutes are: ‘Is this a contentious issue?’, ‘Is the committee likely to have to revisit the subject again in the future, in which case would it be prudent to write a little more or a little less?’ The wise secretary usually writes less not more.

For committee minutes, it is customary to include a statement that they are private and confidential.