Just because you’re a great project manager or a business consultant extraordinaire, doesn’t mean you’re equally expert at business or technical writing.
Yet, how can you hope to successfully deliver what you’ve promised your customers without putting finger to keyboard to record what you’re doing or planning on doing?
How can you successfully consult, plan, design, build, test, manage, report, operate and do all the other things you do within project and operation environments?
And how do you ensure that nothing gets lost in transcription? That your business or technical brilliance is reflected in brilliant documents?
Your documents need to second-guess your audience
When you’re explaining something to someone, you’re using many different visual and verbal clues to determine whether you’re being understood. And you can adjust your information and delivery according to those clues.
Documents don’t have the advantage of that dynamic interaction.
Your documents need to second-guess your audience. You need to provide all the information your readers may need, without being asked for it.
This may sound obvious, but the quality of some documents I’ve seen tells me that it’s not. Technical documents, in particular, can be a nightmare to read and understand.
Are you writing too little, too much or just enough?
You need to write enough to address the needs of your audience, and you need to write in a way that engages them.
For a start, forget about any perceived weight-test. I’ve heard ‘well at least it’ll pass the weight test’ one time too many.
A document doesn’t require bulk to be meaningful or useful.
Another trick is to get past any attitude of ‘just getting it written’.
You may start with a brain dump, with words spilling on to the page. But you can’t leave it that way.
We’re all busy. We don’t have time for wading through waffle.
7 ways to improve your writing
In most professions, producing documents is par for the course. And it can be costly to your business — and that means your brand — if people can’t immediately understand what you’ve written.
So here are seven ways you can improve the quality of your writing:
1. The golden rule: consider your audience
Writing style, level of detail, choice of words and use of jargon are determined by your prospective audience. Make sure you know who they are, and that you understand what they need and expect.
More importantly, write for the people you’ve never met, who may one day pick up your document and depend on it to make a decision or to perform a task.
The trick is to think about taking your audience on a journey. Don’t just drop your readers into the story. Reveal it to them.
You need to tell them the story so they’re able to fully comprehend it … without the benefit of having been involved in developing the document or having you to answer questions about it.
2. Allow enough time
Writing takes time. Don’t underestimate the effort involved.
Allow adequate time to plan the structure; gather, write and edit content; report progress; and, most likely, have the document reviewed and approved by others.
There are many factors that influence how long this will take (no, I’m not going to list them here), and I guarantee it’ll take longer than you expect.
3. Write first, edit later
Plan the structure of your document and choose appropriate headings.
Your company’s templates are a great starting point. (Templates are a great way to save time and money.)
If there are no templates (did you check your intranet?) and you don’t know where to start, don’t waste precious time staring at a blank page — just start writing something, anywhere in the document.
Don’t feel you have to start at the beginning and write to the end. When you have a flash of inspiration, or as content comes to hand, put it where it belongs in the document. Use bullet points, leave comments for yourself … do whatever it takes to get the content in there.
Rework the structure and the headings as the content is developed. Just don’t get bogged down with final wording … yet.
4. Copy with caution
Be cautious when using an old document as the source for a new one. You don’t want to give a prospect a proposal with someone else’s name in it.
Ensure you read every word carefully and replace what’s needed. And remember to reword copied content to suit its new context.
Be extra careful when using your word processor’s global search-and-replace. You’ll find yourself in trouble if words and terms weren’t used consistently in the document you copied. You still need to read the content to make sure everything was picked up and replaced as you intended.
5. Flow and clarity are paramount
Your content won’t make sense without logical structure, meaningful headings and clear explanations. Your readers shouldn’t have to sift through unstructured, verbose and repetitive text, and make sense of it.
So, once you’ve finished writing your content, read your document. Every word of it.
Edit it: add, move, change, delete, improve, simplify and clarify. Review the structure of sentences, paragraphs and sections to ensure the content flows.
Leave it a day or more before you read it again, editing as necessary. Then leave it another day or more and read it again, editing as necessary. (That wasn’t an echo.)
6. Read it aloud
Read your document aloud to get a better sense of how it flows. Remember your audience — reading the document should be effortless.
If you need to re-read a sentence in order to understand it, then you need to rewrite it.
Reading aloud may also highlight obvious grammar errors.
7. Allow adequate time for others to review your work
We tend not to notice our own mistakes, so have someone proofread your document.
Don’t rely on a spellchecker. They don’t pack up valid works used in the wrong place. (See!)
And if your document requires peer review and approval, consider that a single reading may not be enough to properly assess it. That means you need to plan and communicate with reviewers to make sure you’ve allowed enough time and given them enough warning.
It’s not fair to expect that a colleague can drop everything to review or proofread your document on demand.
What do your documents say about you?
Your documents are evidence of your work and your ability. So you don’t want your documents to say your work is crap.
Think about it: in some cases the documents you produce are the only evidence of whatever it is you’ve done.
So what impact do you want your documents to make?