Writing for Businessby Steve Roche
A process for writing
There is no single ‘right’ process for writing. It will depend on what you are writing and your own preferences. The key here is to try different ways of writing until you find the technique that suits you. Anything novel is likely to feel strange at first, so try new approaches a few times to get used to them before deciding whether to keep them or not.
Analyse which parts of the writing process are not so easy for you. Is it just getting started? Is it writing the body of the piece? Is it completing the auxiliary sections, such as appendices? Is it proofreading and redoing parts of the draft copy? One of the reasons you may find some part of the writing process less than easy for you is that you have not yet discovered a process that suits you.
It is well worth learning what works for you. It’s important to find a good process, one you can rely on, especially when you find yourself up against a deadline, with an urgent writing task and a short time-scale.
The actual writing may seem like the hard bit, but it’s made much easier and quicker by the thinking that happens before it. You need to know why – exactly – you are communicating. Think it all through first. Allowing between 15 and 30 per cent of the time for preparation actually reduces the overall time for the task. It’s tempting just to start at the top, but in the end the job will take longer.
Identify the real purpose of the document and stay focused on that at all times: for example the aim of this document is... to prevent budget wastage or... to increase return on investment.
- What outcomes are you seeking by creating this document?
- How are you going to use it?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What is their likely current point of view?
- What do you want the readers to do or know after having read it?
In order for the written piece to achieve its purpose, you will need to decide several things.
- What structure is required?
- What needs to be included?
- What should be excluded?
- What style of writing would be appropriate?
- What format should it be in: a bound report, for example?
List the contents – just put down at random every point you want to make, ignoring structure (mind map or brainstorm, using a flip chart or white board).
This may or may not be necessary. Collect everything you need before starting and check your facts. If you are including diagrams, maps, tables and so on, prepare these at the planning stage (see below).
In addition to giving information in a clear, accessible and visual format, diagrams can often ‘say’ what would otherwise take paragraphs to explain. The same should ideally apply to any photographs or illustrations that may accompany your writing: they should tell a story rather than just being there as ‘eye candy’.
If it is a larger document, or even just a letter, you then need a plan. Sort it out – decide what logically goes together, the sequence and what is ancillary (examples, evidence, illustration). Arrange the content into a plan.
Perhaps draw a storyboard, so you have a picture to inspire for each section. Use a flip chart to map out the sections, processes and themes of the document, using mind maps, algorithms, flow-charts, illustrations and/or references.
Look at the pieces and identify what else you might need to have in order to get the job done. Get more input if needed.
Review your plan. If possible, step back and leave it before coming back to it. Get a colleague to check it. It is much easier to correct structural errors now rather than later, after the writing is done.
Write – it is now easy because you have a clear plan and have separated two tasks: deciding what to write, and how to put it.
Produce a first draft, concentrating on content rather than style, just getting down what you need to say. Leave it for a while – perhaps a day or two – then go back to it with a fresh eye. Give it to your unconscious to work on while you’re doing something else.
Review and rework
Read your material the from the reader’s point of view. Is it clear? Revise it until you are satisfied. Nobody writes perfectly the first time; it will need revising. One of the hardest writing skills to acquire is to be prepared to cut – ruthlessly. You may have expressed something beautifully, feeling really ‘in flow’ as you were writing it, but if it strays from the point of your argument, cut it out. You can always paste the bits you cut into a separate list. Maybe – just maybe – they will come in useful elsewhere.
Time is money, and no-one wants to read waffle, but at the other end of the spectrum it is also easy to be too succinct, to assume the reader ‘knows what I mean’. If you’re the expert and the reader is new to the subject, you may need to spell out certain basic essentials that seem obvious to you.
In a spare moment between drafts, ask yourself ‘what am I really trying to say here?’ then note something down. It will alter the way you go back to your work.
There are those who correct as they go... and those who write long sentences and then go back to shorten them, make passive verbs active, check for dangling modifiers (where the subject of a phrase appears to be but is not the same as the subject of the sentence) and so on. Find out what works for you and stay with it.
Rework the writing
- Redraft for clarity, understanding and conciseness
- Cut out redundant words, sentences and paragraphs, and repeated ideas
- Seek to include examples, diagrams, exercises or quotations that help make the message clear
- Look for ways to make the reading enjoyable and different
- Read it aloud to ensure it flows. If you stumble, it needs changing
Develop your writing skills by inviting reviews of your own work and using the feedback you get to improve. Remember, the report you write is for others, not for you. If you are writing for people from a different department or who do not share your particular area of expertise, get someone from the target group (or a similar group) to check it over. They will be much better at noticing if you have fallen into the ‘expert’s trap’ of assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader. Make it clear that you will welcome constructive criticism.
Adopt a system like this and make it work for you. Once it becomes a habit, writing gets easier – and better.