I have seen brilliant engineers go totally blank when asked to write a document. And the reason is that while we assume everyone can write, no one teaches us how to write well. Over the years, I have realized that writing is not an art, but a step-by-step methodical process. There are three primary phases in the writing process:
As you can see, writing is only one phase of the entire process. If we start and stop only at this phase, what we get is a brain-dump instead of a well-written document. Let’s break down the phases into doable steps:
Step 1: Audience Analysis
This is the most crucial step in the writing process that most of us forget about. Audience analysis lays the foundation of a solid, logical draft. Before starting any writing task, take a moment to ask yourself:
- Who am I writing for? Who are my readers?
- Why are they reading this piece of writing?
- What do I want them to do after they are done reading it? Study it? Share it? Make some decision based on it?
- What environment are they reading it in? In office, at home, while commuting to or from work?
- Which device are they using? Laptop? Handheld device? Printed hard copy?
- How much time do they have to read this?
Asking yourself these basic questions helps you think from the reader’s perspective. Instead on focusing what you want to say, you can focus on what the readers want to know. It helps you decide how you structure your content, what layout you choose, what background information do you include in your document, and so on. And trust me, that makes all the difference in the world.
One trick I use is hold imaginary conversations with a representative reader. For instance, if I am documenting a software design for a new employee, I imagine myself explaining the design to them in person. It helps me figure out how much they know about the product and where my document needs to start. This trick is definitely worth a try.
Step 2: Brain-dump
Once you have figured out who you are writing for, it’s time to brain-dump everything you know about the subject you want to write about. You can use the following techniques for this step:
- Free-writing: Just open a word processor and write everything you know about the subject. Don’t edit it, don’t stop to think. Just let it flow.
- Mind-mapping: Go to a whiteboard or take a piece of paper and make a mind-map of everything you know about the subject.
- Brainstorming/Talking it out: Talk to a coworker or a friend and explain everything you know about the subject to them.
When you are working on a writing task, your brain is filled with things that you know and want to communicate. This overwhelming information is what leads to writer’s block. Dumping everything you know on paper or screen or whiteboard allows you to get those thoughts out of your head and into a visual form. Once you have a visual of all the information, it is easy to pick and choose the information relevant to your audience.
Step 3: Filling in the missing pieces
After you analyze your audience and brain-dump information, you can identify the gaps in your content. Depending on how much you know about the subject, you may or may not need to research the missing information and fill in the gaps.
Step 4: Organizing your information
Once you know who your audience is and exactly which information you want to convey, it’s time to decide on an organizing pattern. Choosing an organizing pattern helps you give a structure to your document. Here’s a cheat sheet for choosing an organizing pattern:
|If you want to…||Then use…|
|Explain events that occurred or might occur or tasks that the reader is to carry out||Chronological order|
|Explain a complex situation, such as the factors that led to a problem or the theory that underlies a process||General to specific – Understanding the big picture helps readers understand the details|
|Present a set of factors||More important to less important|
|Present similarities and differences between two or more items||Comparison and contrast|
|Assign items to logical categories or discuss the elements that make up a single item||Classification and partition – Classification involves placing items into categories. Partition involves breaking a single item into its major elements|
|Discuss a problem you encountered, the steps you took to address it, and the outcome or solution||Problem-methods-solution|
|Discuss the factors that led to a given situation||Cause and effect|
Now we get to the actual writing process. By now, you have a clear idea of what you want to say and how you want to say it, so you have skillfully avoided the writer’s block. Now you just convert the points you want to convey into sentences. Again, don’t stop to edit at this point. For now, just convert the points into sentences and paragraphs.
One trick to write a draft quickly is start from the crux of the document instead of the introduction. Write the main content first, and then the introduction and conclusion follow easily.
By now, you have already completed 67% of the writing! Congratulations!
To quote the Guru of writing well, William Zinsser, “The essence of writing is in rewriting”. No truer words have ever been spoken. Once you have your draft ready, take a break. If you can, leave it alone for a day. If not, at least take a coffee break or go walk around the block.
When you get back, focus on the content of the draft first. Don’t get into the mechanics of language – grammar and word choices just yet. Think about your audience once again. While writing, has your understanding of the audience changed? If yes, does the draft reflect the changed understanding? Does your content serve the audience’s purpose? Make changes to your content if required.
Once you are sure you have the right content, now move on to the technicalities of language. There are innumerable rules about how to edit your copy and most of them are overwhelming if you edit the whole document at once. I use a simple trick: I start with the last sentence of the document, edit it, and then make my way to the beginning of the document in reverse order. This forces me to focus on one sentence at a time, and it becomes much more manageable.
Another helpful resource for editing is the paramedic method. I use it extensively and highly recommend it. Here’s a video of the paramedic method in action:
A practical example:
I used the writing process while working on grant proposal for a Usability Lab at Missouri S&T. Here’s the process in action:
Audience analysis profile sheet: Audience_Profile.doc
This was followed by the writing and editing phases. And here’s the final proposal: Usability Lab Proposal – Amruta Ranade
So there you have it. A step-by-step method to write well. Go try it out!