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In Writing, Process Makes Perfect.
“I hear and I forget. I read and I remember. I write and I understand.” ~ Chinese proverb
Have you ever found yourself staring at an empty legal pad or computer screen — fingers fiddling with a pen or hovering nervously over a keyboard? Have the words “Where do I start this thing?” been such an obsessive presence that you yearn for the relief of the last sentence, no matter what chaotic form the actual text may take as it tumbles from your overworked brain?
If not, you’re being less than candid with yourself. If you have experienced that writers angst — and we all have — there’s a solution. It’s called the “writing process,” and it works whether you’re crafting a press release, a lengthy essay, an email answering an urgent request from your boss, a sales pitch to a potential consulting client, or even a speech or presentation.
People who write for a living go through the steps of the process automatically. When I draft a newspaper column, I may jot down a few notes to reflect an emerging idea well before I approach the keyboard. That way, when I start typing I know where I’m headed with the all-important first paragraph or two, and I’ve got a pretty good fix on how to back up that opening.
At my business communication and writing skills seminars, I pause before I spell out the four-step writing process to discuss two principles that are at the heart of effective writing. In my mind, they work in parallel, approaching the writing task from slightly different angles. One is “ideas and details” and the other is “show don’t tell.”
Writing, and the thinking that makes writing work, is all about presenting ideas and backing them up with details. The idea is your main point and any further points, or sub-topics, that support it are the details. It’s not enough to tell potential donors in a fundraising letter that your nonprofit needs money. You must also tell them why you need money, the amount, and how you intend to spend it. You should deploy those elements in a manner that takes careful account of your readers’ background and knowledge. By the same token, each paragraph should lead with an idea elaborated via details in the following sentences.
What about “show don’t tell?” When I work with teachers who have trouble getting their students to write, I describe an exercise that they could replicate in the classroom. Ask the kids, as a group, what kind of a day it is. When they start coming back with “beautiful” or “nice” or “pretty,” tell them you’d like to hear more and go to a flip chart or whiteboard, where you ask them to use their senses.
Before long, and I’ve seen this happen, they start competing to compile a list that includes chirping birds, wet grass when it hasn’t even rained (dew), air warm enough to take off your jacket and carry it, the perfume of lilacs at the house next to school, grass that’s gone from a grayish brown to green, and on and on. Such are the elements that bring writing alive as the kids now have the ingredients to describe a vibrantly different spring day in details that dismiss the dull “beautiful” and “nice” and “pretty.”
What I’ve just laid out is the first phase of the writing process — exploratory. Also referred to as “brainstorming” or “pre-writing,” this is where you jot down or type what you know about your topic. Let it flow and don’t fret about grammar rules, sentencing or paragraphing. It’s a sort of stream-of-consciousness conversation with yourself, where you examine all your notes and start to fashion key points.
Along the way, you delete redundancies as well as facts, stats and any other material that don’t support your main and ancillary ideas — always with an eye to what your readers already know, their level of sophistication, and what they need to know. If you’re like me, you’ll take particular pleasure in this winnowing. It means you’re making progress, and you can now approach that screen or legal pad with confidence.
From there, you move into drafting, where the choices you made in the previous stage help focus attention on your overall point. The road ahead looks a lot less cluttered as the supporting ideas and details fall into place. Here you’ll feel downright fluent about your writing skills because the initial brainstorming made you so familiar with your material.
Next comes editing/revising. I’ve ranted about the pitfalls of poor quality control often enough in other articles. Suffice it to say that any reader who spots spelling errors, sloppy or nonexistent editing, and content that argues with itself has a right to ask: “So what else is wrong with this mess? Is it even accurate?” Are you wasting the potential of well-crafted and effective business communication?
Here’s one piece of advice likely to apply to nearly every writer: As you edit and revise, remember that brevity and clarity go hand in hand. The novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupery said it best: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Finally, you get to publish, also known as hitting the “send” button. That’s it. That’s the process. Well done.
Please visit my website at http://www.davegriffithscommunications.com, where you’ll find that I’ve worked with a variety of government, nonprofit and private-sector clients on business communication skills — from effective writing to presentation skills to media relations.
I travel widely to do writing and media and presentation skills training for clients ranging from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Red Cross to the Department of Homeland Security to the Veterans Administration to the National Nuclear Security Administration to Navy SEALs to senior executives at a variety of federal agencies to businesses that need help with technical writing and written sales proposals.
My professional background is journalism, having reported for the Kansas City Star and covered national security for several publications, including Business Week magazine. After leaving Washington, I was a member of the Penn State journalism faculty for six years. I have a degree in English from the University of Virginia and a masters in journalism from the University of Missouri, and served as a U.S. Army field artillery officer in Germany and Vietnam.
I live with my wife and two sons in a small town in Maine, where I publish a municipal newsletter and chair a school board.