Write Better Articles, Reports and Proposals in Half the Time
This is a practical, step by step approach to writing any long document efficiently and getting a high quality result.
First, divide the job into manageable tasks and be realistic about how much time you have. There are four tasks:
Divide your time into three parts, the first for tasks 1 and 2, the second for task 3 and the third for task 4. If, for example, you have to write something by the end of tomorrow and you have about four hours that you can devote to it, allocate a bit over an hour in total to planning and deciding on a suitable structure.
This set of articles will be presented in four parts: one for each task. Here is the first one.
Plan your Document
You are probably thinking that a third of your available time is too much to spend on planning. You are definitely not alone – but you can only test my “half the time” claim if you follow my all my suggestions at least once.
Planning splits into two parts:
1. Clarify the Brief
2. Organise your Material
Clarify the Brief
Ask yourself two important questions: who is going to read this, and why am I writing it? Think how much you know about your readers. You may know them personally or have never met them. You may know what their role is, which gives you some strong hints about what they are likely to know about already, what they are likely to need to know and what keeps them awake at night. There may be some internal politics you are aware of, or you may be able to hazard a guess about their likely reaction to the message you are about to convey. All of these snippets of information are useful, so jot them down.
Now think about your objective; your reason for writing this. Are you trying to win some new business; explaining something to a non-specialist; proposing a change to working practices in your organisation or writing an article to establish your expert status in a specific field? Ask yourself this:
What exactly is supposed to happen as a result of your reader(s) reading this? Be realistic about what a document can achieve – you probably won’t win the business as a result of your proposal, but it may get you short-listed. A document can’t change working practices but it might persuade someone to approve the budget.
You can only write a good document if you know who you are talking to and what you are trying to achieve. It is that simple. So, if you are vague about the answers to these questions, go and find out or make some sensible assumptions and write them down.
Organise your material
Think about what information you need in order to achieve your aim. This will almost certainly be different from what you happen to know about the subject. You may know more than you need in some areas and less in others. There are lots of good techniques for getting your head straight and putting some useful notes onto a single sheet of paper. Mind mapping is particularly valuable if you are on unfamiliar territory and have no idea where to start. No-one else needs to see your mind map, so make it as messy as it needs to be. If you are arguing for one course of action rather than another, force field analysis is very useful for getting both points of view lined up side by side. Use any technique you find useful (see Mind Tools for a good variety of thinking and planning techniques including both of the above), but please use something. The outcome should be some coherent, logical notes, not just a random brain dump.
The second part of the planning process is to select a structure that will deliver your message in a convincing way.
Select a Structure
The structure is the order in which you make your points to create a compelling story. The three structures described here are useful starting points but there are plenty of others, and do adapt them to suit your reader and your material.
I know every discipline seems to have its four Ps – well, here is mine. It is useful when you are putting forward your preferred solution to a recognised problem. Please note that the words beginning with P are guidelines for the content of the sections of your proposal, NOT headings.
Position – how things stand right now factually and without comment (how many people in team, gradual increase in the amount of work...)
Problem – why this state of affairs is not ideal (performance indicators not being met, low morale...)
Possibilities – discuss the pros and cons of several possible courses of action (don’t forget the “do nothing” option and its consequences)
Proposal – which of the options you prefer (and why if it is not already obvious).
This is useful when you are persuading your readers to take some specific action such as come to an event, give you feedback or visit your website.
Attention – a heading or subject line that is relevant and interesting to your reader
Interest/involvement – a section that reels them in and convinces them that this is something they need to pay attention to
Details – now that they are listening, deliver the meat of your message
Action – tell them (or summarise, if you have already told them) exactly what action you require
Facts – Conclusions – Recommendations
Many regular monthly reports are written this way, but it is a flexible shape that lends itself well to financial analysis, letters of complaint, suggestions for courses of action and a whole array of other writing tasks.
First, keep to the facts, making sure you say nothing that your reader will have any justification for disagreeing with. Then build on them to provide your analysis, views, discussion and conclusions as appropriate, adding no information that wasn’t already introduced in the facts. Finally, base your recommendations on the conclusions and they will be convincing. How you split the information in the document should depend on how the reader will find it easiest to absorb. For example, you can have several sections with the facts, conclusions and recommendations logic repeated in each one. The key to making this structure work is to remember that every conclusion must be backed up by at least one fact and recommendations must lead out of the conclusions. So you finish up with a story along the lines of “these and these are how things are, which shows us this so we should do that.”
When you read an article that you find interesting and persuasive, take a moment to notice the structure of it. Give it a name and remember to adapt it for your own use when the time is right.
Write a Rough Draft
Now you are ready to start writing. You are ready because you have thought through what you need to say and how it is going to fit together, so you can put each section into words knowing what it needs to contain. My advice at this stage is to write as fast as you can, getting the ideas down according to your plan but not worrying at all about fine details. By this I mean that you can write unfinished or confusing sentences; leave out words you can’t think of; leave gaps for information you need to check; and ignore all the wiggly lines that the spelling and grammar checkers throw at you. Be careful that no-one persuades you to send it to them at this stage because it is still in its underwear and not at all ready to be seen. You can mark missing information and incomplete sentences with an otherwise unused symbol such as $$ if you are nervous about missing them later.
I suggest this behaviour for the following reasons:
1. It is more efficient to concentrate on a narrow range of mental activities at once. Get the content down roughly and in a sensible order now. The time for fine tuning is later – that’s why we have left a third of the time for checking.
2. If you stop whenever you are unhappy with a sentence and try to get it right immediately, you risk getting side-tracked and wasting time. You are much more likely to spot errors and see alternative ways to say things when some time has elapsed.
3. Once you have finished writing your document, you feel a sense of relief even though you know it is not perfect. You can relax just a little and move into a different gear, step back for a moment and admire your handiwork. If at all possible, leave it overnight at this point. If not, at least go and have a coffee or make a phone call – think about something different for a while.
I said get it all down as quickly as you can, but here are a few items you would be well advised to pay attention to at the writing stage.
Decide before you start whether you are writing from your own or your company’s point of view using “I” or “we” (first person), talking about “the company” (third person) or avoiding all of these (see style below).
Is your subject matter to do with things that will still be true by the time your reader reads your words (as in: the earth is more or less spherical) or will they be in the past by then (as in: we have selected this methodology for its accuracy and ease of use).
Do you want to come across as friendly, approachable and relaxed or do you need to sound formal, objective and correct? There is no right answer here – your answer should depend on what you are writing and who will read it. If you need to avoid “I” and “we” you may need to write in a passive style (as in: this action is recommended), rather than an active one (as in: we recommend that you take this action).
The items above can be very tedious to sort out at the checking stage because there are no “convert from passive to active” or “change to present tense” buttons on the word processor. So they are worth considering carefully, at the beginning of the writing stage.
Your document is written now but not ready, and there are several painstaking processes to be completed, so you will need every bit of that last third of your available time. Don’t skimp this step.
Checking is made up of two distinct activities:
Check content; level of detail; accuracy of information; tone; appropriateness for the reader and the logical development of the story. Above all, does it meet the objective you set for it at the outset?
Check spelling; grammar; missed or repeated words; consistency in use of capital letters, date formats and abbreviations. Make sure headings, sub-headings and bullets are consistently presented.
It is sensible review and proofread in that order. However, if you are incapable of ignoring a spelling mistake, as I am, you may need to get the proofreading out of the way first.
How to review thoroughly
If the document is long (over five pages) you will be well advised to use outline view in MS Word so that you can see your headings without the associated text and move chunks of text around easily. If you don’t have access to this function, I advise printing your document onto scrap paper so that you can flick through it and make notes – it’s very difficult to review thoroughly while scrolling through multiple pages on screen.
You should look at your document through the eyes of your reader. Will it make sense to them? Have you provided enough background information to help them to understand what this is about? Does it answer their question, provide compelling reasons for action, explain your point of view or whatever you were trying to do? Is it clear to them what they are supposed to do next? Be hard on yourself and be willing to take a whole chunk by the scruff of the neck and toss it out (this is why it was a good idea to write it quickly). Equally, be willing to add bits if you feel that your logic doesn’t flow. Do NOT fiddle with words and fine-tune sentence structures now, reviewing is about getting the ideas across to someone who starts from a different point of view from your own.
How to proofread thoroughly
Some parts of this job are best done on-screen, and for others you need to print the document out.
Spell check – very useful indeed but use your head as well. The spell checker will pick up words where your fingers got in a twist and ones you weren’t sure how to spell, but never accept a suggestion unless you are confident that it is right. Some of its ideas are bizarre in the extreme. If in doubt, use a dictionary. As online ones go, AskOxford is pretty good but remember to select ‘English dictionary’ not ‘entire site’.
Grammar check -- Trust yourself. Use the grammar checker to point out missed words and draw your attention to careless errors but don’t let it influence your style. Ignore comments about fragments and passives unless you are sure what they mean. Neither of these is necessarily wrong.
Sentence length -- Check your average sentence length – there are some instructions on another blog post if you don’t know how. If your average is above 20, look for the longest sentences and break them into two. This is the most important action you can take to make sure that your writing is readable.
Find and replace -- If you think you may have used any abbreviations, spellings or capital letters inconsistently, find and replace is the most efficient way to iron this out. Never, ever click “replace all”, as it is sure to create a stupid error (such as a sentence beginning with a lower case letter) that you may not notice. Finally, search for your $$ symbol to make sure you have got rid of them all.
On paper jobs
Now print your document out, and settle down with a red pen and a cup of tea in a quiet place. Read slowly and carefully, line by line. You are not reading for sense, you are looking for errors the spell checker will have missed (‘from’ instead of ‘form’ for example), sentences that do not read right first time, bullets where the punctuation is inconsistent, brackets you forgot to close and minute detail of this kind.
I strongly recommend that you proofread the last page first, then the second last and so on, because:
1. This will prevent you from skim reading – which is a natural inclination
2. You will be freshest when checking the pages you wrote when you may have been becoming tired or bored.