Improve your writing — 6 steps to better outcomes

Anybody can improve their writing. Good writing is a combination of mechanics and artistry and it can be learnt.

This short course provides some fundamental steps that can improve your writing dramatically. From short notes and emails to long proposals or submissions, you can learn how to get better outcomes with written communication. The six steps are:

  1. Generating
  2. Organising
  3. Drafting
  4. Revising
  5. Editing
  6. Proofreading

Note these steps down somewhere you will be able to see them and mentally tick off each one as you go.

#1 Generating

Generating is drawing together the material you need to write your document. It is both a brain dump and a research exercise.

It is an essential part of getting started. There is a relationship between clear thinking and clear writing. In generating your material, you are beginning the process of clarifying your thoughts about your document.

And starting from nothing is hard! Staring at a blank screen, cursor blinking, is enough to put anyone off. Suddenly you realise you need a cup of tea, or you remembered you were going to check your bank statement, or tweet something. Maybe that email you’ve been waiting for has arrived. It’s easy to submit to procrastination without your notes and materials around you.

I like to do certain things to keep me on track. You might like to try these or find other methods that work best for you.

Locate your resources

I start by finding all the documents that I already have that I will be drawing on. They may not all be relevant, but it is good to start with more rather than fewer resources. I either print these out, or have onscreen, arranged so I can see relevant sections.  On your hard copies, highlight relevant sections for quick reference.

Then do the research you need. What are you missing? Identify gaps.

Make notes

Thinking about the three questions above, start to make notes. I like to make these on a new Word document onscreen, but you can use paper. Write down words, phrases, points to remember. Write everything down, even if you think it is unimportant.

There are no wrong thoughts here. Everything that surfaces is useful. Remember that it is much easier to craft what you are trying to say once you realise what it is that you don’t want to say.

Underline or bold words that you see as the most important—these are the key concepts and will help you organise your notes.

Brainstorm

As part of generating, do a few brainstorms. Take a clean piece of paper and write down an answer to each of the questions above (purpose, audience, tone) in the centre of the page. Around this central idea, write down anything that comes to mind. These are your supporting ideas and they will also have off-shoots.

For instance, if you are writing a submission seeking a favourable response from a government department, you may write: ‘satisfy outstanding questions,’ and then around that, you may note the gaps, inconsistencies, problems that you need to address. Refer back to your marked-up resources to jog your memory.

Draw on your resources

Go back to your notes, and start to flesh them out with supporting material. I like to copy and paste sections of supporting documents under relevant headings. Build examples and case studies here which add colour to your argument.

Then, when writing, instead of having to return to the whole source document, I use these excerpts when I want to expand on an argument or draw on an example.

If you are using resources written by other people, and want to quote directly or use large sections of their work, remember to note the URL, their name and publication details at the beginning. Attribution is vital and it is much easier to do this now than hunt around later for a source document.

Now you have a set of notes, you are ready to begin organising. This is the second process step.

#2 Organising

Organising your notes is when you begin to sharpen your thoughts. As writers, we need to be able to answer these questions about the text:

  1. What is this document’s purpose?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. What is the right language and tone?

When you are clear on these points, you will be ready to draft some powerful words. So, to take the first question.

1. What is the purpose of this document? 

Is it to advocate a position? Inform? Instruct? Warn? Whatever its purpose, there are a few things to get right.

  • Set the scene for the reader. Explain the background and provide some context. This helps their understanding. Once you have that, your ability to drive your point home increases.
  • Make it clear early on what, if anything, you expect the reader to do. If you are inviting a response, repeat your invitation at least twice – at the beginning and at the end.
  • If that response is necessary within a defined time, make the timeline crystal clear. School notes have to be some of the worst performers here—pulled out from the bottom of a school bag, the first thing any parent wants to know is, When is it due? Put it upfront!

The main idea

Looking at your notes, jot down the main idea, the key element.

Once you have done this,  roughly group together your other thoughts and notes according to topic. What belongs together? Group these supporting ideas under loose headings. These are not sequential, but overlapping. Go back and forth, adding and moving the pieces around. It is like a jigsaw puzzle.

Once you can see the content more clearly, check for things that you might have forgotten. What else could you add?

Prioritise

Allocate a priority, a ranking, to each of the supporting ideas. Now you have an ordered list from your notes which will form the structure of your draft. What you have now is a system.

2. Who is the audience? 

When you start thinking about your reader, you are conducting an audience analysis. This is a key part of communicating.  It’s all about the reader. Keep this front and centre while organising your notes.

Think about these questions?

  1. Who are they?
  2. What do they need?
  3. Where will they be reading?
  4. How will they be reading?
  5. What is the attention span of your audience?
  6. What is its technical knowledge?
  7. Where are they getting their information from now?
  8. What do they need to know (to do their job)?

Are they going to be a reluctant reader? Are they reading for fun, to find something out, or to be able to do something?

3. What language and tone is right for the audience and purpose?

Finally, once you understand your audience, you will be able to adjust the tone and language to be suitable. You are the best judge of this but it’s a good idea to run it past a colleague or friend if you have any doubts. We get too close to our subject matter sometimes and forget how it may appear to fresh eyes.

Now you’re ready to draft!

#3 Drafting

 Shapeshifting ideas

We don’t know what we’re going to say until we write it down. One minute, in our heads, it all seems so clear. Then we try to capture it.

Drafting is when you put your thoughts into words—on paper or on the screen—and you start to see them clearly. This is the beginning of communicating in writing, not the end.

Some martial arts discipline

In my sport, taekwondo, you learn basic techniques as a white belt and apply them throughout the curriculum. These techniques are the foundation of a strong, disciplined practice and will take you to black belt.

Similarly, a sentence, a paragraph and a story (be it creative fiction or corporate proposal) share a basic structure: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They each start something, carry it along and hand it over.

  • A sentence is one complete thought. It takes an idea and sets up what is to follow.
  • A paragraph is one complete topic. It introduces the main idea with an opening sentence, follows up with some supporting detail and then leads into the next topic/paragraph.
  • A story is a complex narrative, setting the scene with an introduction, following with a body of linking concepts, and bringing it together in the conclusion.

 Where to begin?

You’ve done some hard work already. You know your document’s purpose, audience and the right language and tone to use. You’ve organised your thoughts into logical sub-sections.

Now start at any point. Refer to your brainstorm notes and prioritised lists. Make some headings and write a few sentences. What’s next? Under another heading, write another few sentences. How does this whole thing start? Write that down.

Don’t worry about perfectly articulated concepts in this,  your first draft. In truth, they won’t exist until you’ve run through a few versions.

Don’t make your reader work too hard!

Communicating simply and clearly is not treating your readers like idiots. It’s not talking down to them and it doesn’t diminish your expertise.

Your reader will need they need their energy to understand the topic. If they struggle to understand your writing, you will have lost them.

  1. Short sentences – Use a mix of short and longer sentences, keeping most short (under 15 words). Experiment with breaking up a longer sentence into two or three short ones. See how easy it is to follow now.
  2. Active voice – Use the active voice, which clearly defines who is doing what using fewer words and with less scope for ambiguity. Compare:
  • Active – The technician followed the directions.
  • Passive – The directions were followed (by the technician). Too often, the important bit, the technician, is dropped off the end.

Cut the jargon – Minimise jargon and leave it out altogether when communicating with a general audience. Use any technical terminology consistently.

Explain terms, if necessary, or use common, everyday words.

Define all acronyms the first time they appear in the document (and use rarely).

Keep it simple – Keep your language simple. Research has shown that people who use complicated language, when simple words will do, actually appear less intelligent.

Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood. If using technical terms, ensure they match the audience. What is the level of knowledge assumed?

Next step — revising.

#4 Revising

I can see clearly now (the rain has gone)….

Revising is the process of finessing your draft. You will also see anything you don’t want to say, which is just as important as what you do.

Some tips for effective revising:

  1. Never delete while you’re still working on it. Cutting back is much easier than adding more content. Instead of deleting first drafts, make new versions, clearly named. You can trash them later.
  2. Spare words – create a new blank document just called ‘Words for xxx‘ and put in all the words that you have cut out. I often look over it if I’m getting stuck.
  3. Colour by numbers – Print out your document. Give each paragraph (each main idea) a number and then work through the document. Allocate each sentence or cluster of sentences the paragraph number where it fits best. This is often a surprising way to make new connections with existing material.
  4. Look for linkage – Look at the final sentence in each paragraph and see if it links to the first sentence in the next.

Revising is where you lay down a path for your reader. Unless you’re writing a thriller, allow them to see what lies ahead.

You are leading them towards a destination—your conclusion. The clearer the path, the quicker the journey.

Now you are ready to edit, the fifth step to clear writing.

#5 Editing

Once you have drafted and revised, it’s time to edit, and then to proofread. These are distinct tasks and vital to your document’s impact. Make sure you leave enough time to do these properly.

Although you will be editing throughout your writing and revising processes, there will come a point when you feel your document is pretty close to where it needs to be. Now, draw a line in the sand and stop revising. Take off your writer’s hat and put on your editor’s hat. Put yourself into the shoes of a new reader. Try to read it with fresh eye

Structural editing

Editing begins with a structural assessment. As the author, you will have done much of this in your revising process. You will have examined it for flow, comprehension and consistency and tried to remove ambiguous language and jargon.

As a new reader, does it flow together and make sense? Will they understand your conclusion? Will they agree with it?

Take this opportunity to clarify your meaning. Make final adjustments to paragraph order or opening sentences to bring out the document’s purpose and to eliminate any remaining clunky phrasing or repetition.

Identify where sense or meaning is obscured. Consistency in writing, especially business or operational writing, is essential. Check for consistent terminology of names and pronouns.

Scan every paragraph to see how many times you have said the same thing in different ways. This can detract from your message. Repetition is fine at the end of a point, to conclude and emphasise, but try to use the same language.

Copy editing

Once you have finished with the meaning, look at your document line by line and find and fix all the grammar, sentence construction, spelling and word use errors. Remember there may be some that your spellchecker will not pick up. Autocorrect technology is just an aide. Human error demands that rigorous, intelligent eyes scan printed copy. We’ve all seen examples of just how error-ridden a document can be, yet escape any robotic correction.

At the copy editing stage, format tables of contents, insert page numbers if you haven’t yet, and check consistency of your headings and subheadings. Apply captions to tables and figures throughout. Check references and citations. Ensure hyperlinks are working.

And finally, proofreading.

#6 Proofreading

Proofreading is a final quality check. If you need to make further changes to language or structure, you are not at the proofreading stage yet. Make sure you give yourself time to proofread separately.

When proofreading, stop looking for meaning. You are only looking for errors. Read each word distinctly and separately. This is difficult. Our brains are configured to take in strands of about six words at a time and make sense of them. This chunking of meaning is useful for comprehension but works against our ability to find errors in individual words.

I like to proofread on paper using a ruler under each line, but when I proof on-screen, I highlight one line at a time.

Close your door, put on headphones, do whatever you need to do to get into the right headspace. Finding errors after you have given a document the all-clear is a painful experience—and we’ve all been there.

Six steps to improve your writing!

These six steps will take your writing from basic, confused or error-ridden to a more sophisticated level. The ability to write well is within your capabilities.

Contact me for more writing advice at Your Second Draft and find me on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.

 

 

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Writing for outcomes

Here are the four parts of my persuasive writing masterclass in one article. Mix it up, take what you need. Your situation is unique and your appeal will be too.

 

#1 Facts

It was astonishing to hear a spokesperson from the Donald Trump camp question whether a ‘fact’ even existed anymore.

Her argument that ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder is a disturbing sign of the pervasiveness of spin, and it is complete rubbish. In the world that the rest of us inhabit, facts matter. While the Opera House can shimmer with a mermaid’s green scales during Vivid, its tiles are still cream and white.

In a relatively short piece directed to a general audience—it might be a blog piece, promotional copy or a direct appeal such as a letter—keep these points in mind.

  • Get it right. If you are wrong on something that a reader can verify with a few clicks on Google, your credibility is gone. Any interest that you may have generated will be wasted. If you know your product or service, and have something to shout about, this is easy. If research is required, find some verifiable sources (hint: don’t rely on Wikipedia)
  • Not all facts are of equal importance. Rather than crowding your piece with a mass of information, choose the facts that are most relevant to your argument and what your reader needs to know.
  • Don’t mistake facts for argument. You need both. Use your facts as a platform on which to build your supporting argument. Argument is the ‘why’ and provides powerful context.

 

#2 Understanding

Once you know what you want to say and can support it with the right facts, demonstrating understanding is critical. Your words need to ring with confidence. You are building trust with your reader.

If you are going to persuade, expect to defend. And you will find it hard, if not impossible, to defend an argument that you do not understand.

When writing briefs for the Premier of NSW as a graduate policy officer, I was expected to be able to explain anything that I had passed up the line. If I did not understand it, I needed to make the right calls to find out how it fitted into the bigger picture. What did it mean?

Understanding something operates on two levels.

Handling complexity

First, you need to know what you are talking about. Understanding the information is different from making sure your facts are right.

If you don’t understand it, neither will your reader and you have a snowflake’s chance in hell of persuading them to come down on your side.

Apply these rules:

  1. If there is complexity or ambiguity in your argument or in the resources you are working from, find another reference. Ask an expert. A CEO I worked for was never afraid of asking the ‘stupid question’. If you are unsure, others will be too. Trust yourself.
  2. Don’t let complex material languish on its own. Illustrate it with a story, or by expanding on the context. This will show your confidence with the subject. Confidence is catching.
  3. Think about the most rational outcome. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious. Even if powerful vested interests are dominating the debate, flagging the common-sense solution can be powerful.

Emotional understanding

You feel this. It has touched you. Appealing at a basic, human level will elicit a basic, human response from your reader. The gut.

Make it real. Include real events or scenarios. This does not need to be lengthy. In fact the shorter the better. An historian I once read called it ‘corroborative detail’. It will stick with the reader. Some things to remember:

  1. Give your reader a sense that you are a real person. How would they feel if they were in your place? Can you imagine and describe different outcomes?
  2. People, especially in bureaucratic organisations, are inherently conservative and afraid of change. What are your readers’ fears? Can you pre-empt them?

 

#3 Motivation—yours and theirs

The core of any half-decent piece of persuasive writing is the why. If you are looking for an outcome, you have to keep this front and centre. What will make your reader do what you’re asking? It’s both carrot and stick. These things will keep you on track.

Where is the power?
Even if you have influence and can wield it, this is rarely the best option. Especially not if you want to draw on it again. It is a blunt instrument and often resented. If you have any clout or leverage, use it sparingly.

Think about what will make your audience sit up and take notice. If you are not able to wield direct power, how will you get to them?

Stakeholders
Who has a stake in the outcome? The most effective strategy for getting something done, that you can’t do yourself, is to make the other party want it as much as you do. Once your problem is theirs too, you may find them willing to help.

When you have identified who is involved, think about their situation. If there is more than one, are they united, or do they have different objectives? Can you play one against the other? Remember, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Find out who could be adversely affected by a decision. It might not be immediately obvious.

Where are they vulnerable?
If you want to change somebody’s mind, you need to know their pressure points. Their weak spots. If you don’t know, you can indulge their vanities, flatter them. While on one level we all know what’s happening when we’re being sold something, we still have an innate human desire to be seen, to be understood. Use this.

Pick your battles
How often would you make an appeal like this? Think about how badly you need it and keep your powder dry for these times. When I worked in grassroots advocacy, I’d have several tiers of appeal. First up was the killer approach. This was for a case that had our strongest support. I would write a personal, tailored submission that went to the heart.

But if I had pulled this on every one of my caseload, nothing I wrote would have been taken seriously.

Then there was the ‘individual but muted’ appeal which made the case without significant investment. Finally, cases that were less plausible or less serious received a more formulaic approach. Using language to signal your commitment gets the best result when you know your reader, but it is useful to manage workload in any high-volume environment. Set your own tiers and codes to escalate urgency.

Next steps
Your appeal will be stronger if you can follow up. What are the possible outcomes and how can you plan for them? How will your reader interpret your approach? Do they know what your next steps are too? Be one step ahead.

 

#4 Structure and tone

How you put your pitch together is crucial.

You need to get the structure and the language right if you want to turn your reader’s head and keep them looking. Don’t blow your opportunity for a result with poor construction.

The opener
Start strongly. You need to make an impression from the beginning. Imagine you have only 30 seconds of their time before they put your appeal aside. Maybe they’ll pick it up later, but maybe they won’t. Don’t take that risk.

Using what you know of your reader, think what would work best as an opener. A fact? A personal anecdote? A direct appeal? If you know what they are used to seeing, perhaps try something different. You want it to register.

Choosing and placing words
Keep your language as simple as possible. It does not talk down to your audience. Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood and to generate a response. If your subject is technically difficult, instead of tricking up language with jargon or density, give it space to let the reader reflect. The more complex the topic, the plainer the language needs to be.

Use a mix of short and long sentences. This allows the reader to absorb detail without being overwhelmed. A full stop is a chance to rest. The sentences should follow each other, linking logically. Similarly, paragraphs—look at the final sentence of each paragraph and make sure it links to the first sentence of the next. Keep paragraphs short and be sure to only introduce one concept or cluster of ideas in each.

No surprises
Let your reader see what lies ahead. Helping them to link the elements together draws them inescapably to the conclusion, your conclusion. Build your momentum. Repeating a phrase or term is a good way to do this. You want your reader to think ‘Yes,’ or ‘I see it,’ or ‘This makes sense,’ by the time they reach the end.

Keeping your reader onside means no surprises. You don’t want to trigger anxiety. And you are not writing a whodunit so leave your reader with closing words which recap your position.

No mistakes
Finally, keep it clean. Grammatical mistakes look careless. And you care. If you can’t be sure about getting this right, find a second opinion or a fresh set of eyes.

 

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