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Most of us can easily craft simple emails, memos and similar short text at work, but we freeze up when it comes to longer pieces like reports, plans, product sheets, process descriptions and so forth. Break the ice by dividing your project into four steps: research, draft, revise and produce.
- The topic dictates the research required. If you’re describing a work process, the research may simply be making a list. A business case for a new product will demand detailed, time-intensive research. Plan accordingly.
- Start by collecting facts and supportive examples. Adjust the depth of research to the importance of the question and the potential impact of your work.
- Be skeptical, especially of online sources. Wikipedia and other Internet sources provide helpful overviews, but can be unreliable. Check the original sources cited by such articles, and interview knowledgeable experts.
Before you write, define your audience. Bosses, colleagues, board members, potential investors and policy makers have different backgrounds and biases. Focus on the most important readers, consider what they know, how they think and what persuades them.
Next, state your communications goal: heightened awareness or change in behavior as a result of your message. For example, “After reading this, agency regulators will understand that the proposed changes will benefit consumers while improving our industry’s competitive position.”
With the audience and outcome in mind, begin drafting. Some people start by outlining their material while others generate raw content and then organize it. Both methods work.
With either method, imagine yourself as a tour guide leading your readers through the material to a final destination.
- First tell the reader where you’re going to take them (this organizes their thinking).
- Then direct them along the path.
- Keep them moving by supplying relevant facts, information and examples.
- Finally, report to them that they’ve arrived—recapping how they got there and what they’ve learned from the journey.
How you guide the tour is as important as what you show your tourists. That is, the voice you choose needs to match your communication goals and audience.
In most business writing, this means engaging your reader through active verbs, visual descriptions, concrete examples and relevant questions. Focus on clarity, speed and accuracy—avoid “artful” prose. Keep paragraphs short. Adjust your arguments to the reader’s level of understanding. Use abstract concepts sparingly—typically when summarizing arguments.
Ask trusted colleagues to read and comment on your draft—and listen to them. Don’t defend or explain; if it needs explanation, the writing isn’t clear enough.
Then rewrite. Make sure every word supports your final goal. Reorganize and add new research or examples as needed. Once the logic is sound and supported, revise your voice paying special attention to verb choice, descriptions and ease of reading. Finally, read it aloud to be sure it flows smoothly. If you stumble over passages, rewrite them. Repeat as time allows.
Be ruthless! The more you write, the easier it will be to toss out your favorite gems.
Your work must be readable, so now’s the time to focus on the nuts and bolts. These guidelines will help.
- Use your software’s built-in headline levels. Limit yourself to three levels if possible.
- Orient the page vertically. Use 11- to 13-point font size. Keep text flush left, unjustified, with hyphenation on.
- Use a single font in no more than three styles—usually roman, bold and italic. Avoid ALL CAPS; they’re too hard to read.
- Keep line length six inches or less. Long lines are difficult to read.
- Proofread using a straight edge to read one line at a time, and read backwards—from the last word to the first.
- If you’re printing, use a matte paper and dark ink.
Tips to keep moving
- Begin research long before your deadline. Let the facts percolate.
- Start an “idea page” and keep it open on your desk or computer desktop.
- Organize facts when you’re physically active—walking, exercising, even showering.
- If you can’t find writing time, divide the project into bite-size blocks.
- Before drafting, collect and read samples similar to your project.
- Don’t format until you’ve completed your first draft.
You can do it!
Don’t break into a cold sweat next time you have to write. Research, draft, revise and produce. Writing for work is a skill. As with all skills, you’ll improve with practice.
Vincent Hyman is a St. Paul, Minnesota-based writer and editor.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.
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