As writing instructors are fond of saying, writing is nature's way of letting you know how unclear your thinking is. You thought you knew exactly what you wanted to say. It made such perfect sense inside your head. But when you began trying to put your thoughts into words and sentences … well, there was trouble in River City.
Experienced, competent writers tend to develop a systematic approach to planning, drafting and revising. If you haven't developed a method — or even if you have — the following checklist might give you some ideas.
Identify your purpose.
Why are you writing? If you can't state your purpose in a single sentence, you're not ready to start drafting.
Organize your thoughts into coherent, logical order.
For longer documents, make an outline. What are your major points? Mention them in an organizational statement in your opening. Consider presenting them as bold headings in the body of your text. In your closing, tell your readers what you want them to do.
Gather supporting information.
What facts and figures will support your argument? What examples will illustrate your points? What evidence will make you seem credible and believable?
Think about your reader.
Get outside your head. Set aside all the information you've been thinking about and ask yourself what the reader cares about. What does your reader need to know to (a) understand what you're saying, (b) accept your conclusions and (c) take the desired action? Your success depends on recognizing your reader's point of view.
Develop a persuasive strategy. Is your reader sympathetic or hostile to your argument? If sympathetic, state your conclusion first, then your reasons or evidence. If hostile, offer your evidence first, then your conclusion. If your reader is interested in your topic, provide more detail. If your reader doesn't give a hoot, offer less. And don't forget to ask that basic and obvious question: Would it be better to talk than write? Consider the limitations and riskiness of the written word.
Write your first draft.
Try not to edit and revise as you go. At least keep it to a minimum. As Ernest Hemingway observed, "The only thing that matters about your first draft is that you finish it." If new ideas and strategies occur to you as you put your thoughts into words, let them in for now. You can always delete them later.
When possible, allow time to pass before revising. Then check your organization by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Add power to your prose by eliminating wordiness and extraneous elements. As Stephen King observes in "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft": "2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%."
Hurried writing, unthinking responses and rushed production account for many missteps and errors in today's fast-paced communications. Pause before sending. Read over what you've written. Always use spell check. Pay attention to those squiggly red and green lines. For longer documents, make multiple passes, first looking for big things like consistency in headings, and last looking for little things like missing commas.
Now that you have a method, can you feel the power?
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.