Communication & Advocacy
6 Minuten Lesedauer

From ivory tower to solving real-life problems: Mastering the art of writing policy papers

by Wiebke Ewering and Claudia Wessling

Writing policy papers is a valuable skill that requires good preparation and a shift from academic publishing customs. Policy papers aim to reach a broader, non-expert audience, including political decision-makers, business leaders, think tanks, and potentially the media. 

In the competitive field of policy consulting, many experts and institutions are vying for the attention of the target audience. Political decision-makers are busy people who struggle with information overload every day. In this environment, it takes an effort to make yourself heard – or read, for that matter. So, how do we ensure that our policy analysis and our recommendations reach the intended audience? Three points are crucial: 

  1. Know your readers and their problems.
  2. Strive for comprehensible and well-structured writing; dare to cut out the expert’s jargon.
  3. Make your analysis as detailed as necessary but as concise as possible.

To successfully write policy papers, authors must free themselves from perceived peer pressure and avoid technical jargon, abbreviations, and bureaucratic lingo. Fearing their peers' criticism (“dumbing down”, “too shallow”), writers often shy away from explaining facts in terms that are understandable for non-experts or even from presenting straightforward assessments. After all, a policy paper is aimed at political and economic actors, who are always busy and sometimes impatiently looking for quick and comprehensible answers. What they need is concrete and digestible advice on how to solve problems, not analyses for specialists.

Know your audience

Before you start writing a policy paper, it is essential to network with your intended audience, understand their needs, and ensure your recommendations are grounded in reality. As an author who wants his or her policy papers to succeed, you need to know the state of affairs and the political challenges of the topic in question and strive for a reality check for your analysis and proposals – an  essential component of a policy paper.

Once you sit down to write, it is important to have clarity about both format and content. First of all, avoid making your paper too lengthy: a text of around 3,000 words (15,000 characters) is generally sufficient for your busy target audience. The higher someone is in the hierarchy, the more likely he or she will only be able to quickly glance at your cover page. So please make sure your cover page already includes the gist of your paper: a telling and thesis-driven heading, a short paragraph on the relevance of the topic, and a few bullets with your key findings

Crafting a compelling argument

As an author of a policy paper, you aspire to add something new to

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Accordion content 1.

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a debate. Build your argumentation around one well-designed main thesis, use selective data and facts, and avoid complex sentences and unnecessary details. Not all the information you found in the research or raw data needs to be presented, only those that are useful for the argument structure.  Do not formulate questions for analysis (that's lazy!), make statements . Use verbs instead of nouns, name actors and goals. Passionate and opinionated wordings can convey a sense of urgency and relevance, which is appropriate in policy writing. 
Structure is just as important for the story and your argument as its factual and substantive foundation. Put your most important finding or assessment at the beginning of the text. Facts and data – often presented in graphs or info boxes – support the analysis. When writing, remember that political and economic decision-makers need solutions to their problems, which is why pragmatic recommendations or options for action are indispensable parts of a policy paper. 

From review to the final piece

After writing, authors should seek peer-review by experienced writers and discuss the text with their colleagues. Alongside getting feedback from peers in your field, you can also send it to researchers from different fields whose writing you appreciate. They can help strengthen your argument and they may have new insights on the topic, too. This will help to rework your text before it goes into copyediting. Your editor will be attentive to your individual style and is concerned with tightening up your argument and sentence structure, so the language is sharp and clear. 

Even if you are sending out your paper via e-mail, a smart layout that highlights headings looks inviting and inspires reading. For printed policy briefs, a visually appealing and informative cover page, wide page margins (for notes) in the text, and graphic elements can help inspire readers to go on reading. 

In conclusion, writing policy papers is an art that can be learned by looking beyond the horizons of one's own peer community. It is a rewarding experience, and mastering comprehensible writing can make a difference in helping decision-makers understand and solve problems.

Toolbox GlühbirneTips and tricks for writing a policy paper that makes an impact

Before you begin writing, answer these basic questions:

  • What information do your readers need to know to solve their problems? 
  • Can your analysis help them solve these problems?
  • Has your topic already been widely covered? 
  • Does your piece contribute new ideas to the debate around the topic?
  • Do you have reliable facts and data to bolster your argument? 
  • Does your paper offer practical recommendations and actionable advice? 
  • Are you willing and able to move away from experts’ jargon to reach a broader audience?

Practical tips for structuring and writing a policy paper:

  • A policy paper analyzes, classifies, and provides actionable advice to the political community. 
  • Length should not exceed 15,000 characters (or 3,000 words).
  • The title and subtitle should introduce the topic in a clear and compelling way.
  • On page one, key messages are listed in bullet points after a brief teaser. 
  • Main conclusions are clearly stated at the beginning of the text.
  • Statements are substantiated with arguments; backed up with data, facts, and examples; and documented with sources.
  • Headings and subheadings don’t ask questions but give statements.
  • Subheadings are important to structure the text.
  • Relevant sources can be included, but no academic citation is needed.
  • Infographics help visualize your arguments and make your paper more engaging.


Wiebke Ewering

Head of press and communications at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)

Wiebke Ewering


Wiebke Ewering is the head of the press and communications department at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), where she oversees all aspects of external communication. With extensive experience in press and public relations, Wiebke has previously worked for organizations such as the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in Berlin, the Dahrendorf Forum at the Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics, and the Franco-German Youth Office. She holds a double Master's degree in Political Science and European Studies from Freie Universität Berlin and Sciences Po Paris, as well as a Bachelor's degree from the University of Osnabrück and the Université de Montréal. 

Claudia Wessling

Director of Communications and Publications at MERICS

Claudia Wessling


Claudia Wessling leads communications and publications at MERICS. She is a seasoned journalist and Asia expert focusing on China and Indonesia. She has written on digitalization in China, Sino-German relations, Hong Kong and the Belt & Road.  Prior to joining MERICS, Claudia was an editor at the foreign policy desk of news agency Agence France-Presse in Berlin. From 2010 to 2015 she reported on German politics as an AFP correspondent. Also a freelance science reporter, she specializes in mathematics, information technology, and digitalization, and has written for publications such as Heise Technology Review, Tagesspiegel, and Handelsblatt.  Claudia gained experience as a press officer at the representative office of Taiwan in Germany. She studied Chinese, Indonesian, and economics in Bonn, Wuhu and Yogyakarta, before training as a science journalist in Berlin.