It is an honour to join the great contributors to this newsletter. It is not only an honour, but it means I can tackle topics that bug me. So here is the first one. Recently, someone posted this idea on LinkedIn:
I usually just click the thumbs up and go to the next post, but this seemed wrong because I realised this is the chief cause of many heartaches in writing – well, that is my thinking and my experience. So I did not give it a thumbs up and instead wrote this comment:
- “Every minute spent planning how you will do something, will save you two minutes executing your work.’ Far better, is to first identify WHAT it is that should be done (the desired outcome) before taking any action. (which by the way is the deep secret to increasing profits and customer satisfaction).”
It’s like engaging your brain before opening you mouth, as my Daddy always said! Sometimes I wonder if this is just too common sense and old-fashioned to be popular today — when output is equated with success!
So my question is, when you get a new project or writing assignment: Do you start by writing or do you start by thinking?
Planning takes too much time!
There are many excuses for not taking adequate time to think about and plan the execution of a document before writing. Here are my top three, in priority order.
- Arbitrary schedules
Frequently, those who manage deadlines for writing projects are unaware of the time and craft it takes to complete the stages of writing something (a great teaching opportunity for us all). Instead, they agree to arbitrary deadlines in the hopes it will be a career-accelerating decision for them.
There used to be a marketing tag line for an expensive perfume that went like this: ‘Promise her anything but give her Arpege’. Perhaps too many project managers subscribe to promising their bosses anything rather than reasoning out and respecting the time it takes to write well.
If you work in a corporate environment (whether private or public), politics is always at play. Managers often come away from their meetings, return to their own team and regurgitate a date by which such-and-such 300-page document will be completed, including sign off.
It becomes personal. When you are late, it frequently means you are the identified constraint. Often, this results in a poor end product, a lot of broken promises and the establishment of new work habits that ignore deadlines altogether.
- Subject Matter Experts Availability
Technical communicators are not masters of all topics (a secret advantage we have is NOT knowing about a topic). We are, however, experts at bringing innocent ‘wonder’ to topic that others — who knows all about something — can no longer grasp.
Subject matter experts (SME) are often unexpectantly busy at the most inconvenient time to a project’s deadline. You must grab their time when you can get it. This may mean you have to research more, guess more and have less time to think about a topic, forcing you to simply write something to meet a deadline.
It is the decision we all have to wrestle with: Should we take time to think through a topic and assignment or just get something written that will either be rejected or have to be rewritten half a dozen times?
- Unawareness of the writing skill
Ever notice that most people with a laptop/ pen and paper is convinced they could write what is needed without hiring a ‘specialist writer’? Could just be me, but I find in Australia, there is an ongoing innocence of how ‘thinking work’ takes time (sweat and tears).
Professional writers have to balance details, such as:
- the audience(s) being catered for
- the reason for the document
- and a dozen other specifics
Sometimes, writing a document is just an exercise to satisfy rabid auditors who need exact definitions of what is supposed to be happening with a process or procedure. However, better is to write to build confidence in the individuals who must take decisive action from the material you write!
There are also some burning issues to manage as a thinking writer, such as:
- the capability to assimilate and work within various ‘interesting’ editorial standards and use awkward templates (or establishing them before you begin (where/ when they do not exist))
- discovering, establishing and writing in the ‘voice’ of the client/ company
- using terms in a way that will minimize/ eliminate reading friction (jargon and acronyms are at the top of the list!)
This type of investigation and decision-making takes thinking. Once these questions are satisfied it is easy to write. Like one of those slippery slides you lay on the ground and keep the hose running on. That way anyone can sail down the ‘reading runway’ quickly, confidently and without a care.
If you’ve been writing for a long time, this comes easier than if you are new to writing, because it is not just what you learn from a class, but precious neural pathways formed in your thinking to help you ‘see’ the way through these details to excellent writing.
The benefits of writing by first thinking — analyzing the task at hand, considering the options, planning an approach, educating project managers and then writing — is that you will save time, headaches, rework, save your client/ organisation money and result in a better end-product.
Conclusion? Think first before engaging your pen/ pencil/ laptop!
I’m sure you can add to the list from your own experience on the topic of thinking first or writing first. It would be great to hear your ideas – please share by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org !
By Darlene Richard