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    Down and Dirty Business Writing: Nine Steps to Writing Anything Quickly and Effectively

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    Business writing is a craft, not an art form. Like all other crafts, it can be broken down into teachable steps that can be practiced and mastered. What follows are nine steps for writing any sort of business document, from start to finish. These are the steps that every professional incorporates into writing, and that every writing student should be taught. Follow these steps, and you will find steadily improved results with steadily decreasing labor.

    1. Establish your goal. In one sentence, state what you hope to accomplish with this piece of writing. The more clearly you state your goal, the easier the rest of your work in this writing will be, so take time to get it right.
      Tip: Sometimes before writing, I actually walk back and forth, imagining I'm explaining my goal to a colleague. Explaining to a friend (even imaginary) is a great way to get past any cloudiness and to the heart of the matter.
    2. List details to include. With your goal in mind, jot down every detail you can think of that must be covered in your final document. These may be arguments for or against the main point, features to be explained, resources a project will need, and so on. Don't worry about accuracy or order; this step is a brainstorming session. The point is to include everything that might be needed.
      Tip: While I like to make a list for this step, some people prefer to cluster or to free write. Choose an option that best suits you and your writing task.
    3. Organize your details. At this point, you should have a clear enough vision of your writing's emerging shape to recognize what details you can cut, what missing details you will need to research, and in what order your details would best be presented. This is often an exciting point in the process, like viewing a landscape from the air, with its checkerboard of fields and lines of highways.
      Tip: If you've made a list on computer, it's simple enough to drag items into the proper order, cut pieces, and add details from your research. You can even turn it into a formal outline, if needed.
    4. Write the body. Once your list of details is organized, it's time to get to the business of writing. Basically, this means turning your details into complete sentences, with supporting sentences to introduce and explain them. Each main point will most likely need its own paragraph, perhaps more. Minor details may be better suited for a list of bullet points. The length of the overall writing, the depth of details, and your audience's familiarity with the subject will determine how much "meat" you'll need to add to the bare bones of your list. Clear transitions will serve as the ligaments holding all this muscle together.
      Tip: Again, imagining that you're explaining things to a friend or colleague can help you decide exactly what to say and how to say it.
    5. Add a conclusion. With the body finished, bring your writing to a close, focusing again on what you originally set out to accomplish. Now that your reader has all the necessary information, you can make a call to action regarding that purpose.
      Tip: There is no need to "beat a dead horse" in your conclusion. If the body of your writing has effectively made its case, the conclusion is just a formal request to act upon it.
    6. Add an introduction. Once the body of your writing is finished, you can most effectively go back and write an introduction. Think of something that will catch your reader's interest, tell that reader what to expect from the writing, and make her or him want to read onward. Think of it as shaking hands and welcoming the reader in.
      Tip: It may seem odd to write the introduction last, but writers often flounder otherwise, uncertain of how to start. Writing this part last avoids that problem.
    7. Take a break. Once you've finished drafting a piece of writing, stop and take a break. Your brain needs time to switch from writing mode to editing mode.
      Tip: Notice that up to this point, your brain should not have been allowed to edit. Just as it's difficult to write and erase at the same time, it's tough to generate text while second-guessing it all.
    8. Reread and revise. If possible, ask a colleague to read your draft and point out problems with clarity and organization. Professional writers have copyeditors for just this purpose, and it definitely improves the final product while also shortening production time.
      Tip: As much as possible, ignore spelling, grammar, and punctuation for now. Concentrate on missing details, unclear arguments, improvements to order, and so on.
    9. Edit and proofread. Once everything else is in great shape, check for spelling, grammar, correct word usage, punctuation, and other such niceties. If these are not your strengths, ask for help. Again, professional writers have proofreaders for this purpose, as do most important businesspeople.
      Tip: Many people make the mistake of editing and proofreading before a piece of writing is really finished. That's sort of like trying to sand and stain a tabletop before it has been planed smooth. You just can't sell a piece of furniture like that.

    Some writers may quibble about the exact points above, suggesting that steps 2 and 3 should actually be joined, or that step 7 isn't really part of the writing process. Some may tell you they never do step 1. The fact remains, however, that every successful piece of writing goes through this stepwise process in one way or another (with step 1 prepared mentally, for instance), and if you follow these steps, you'll find your own writing both easier and more successful.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo: JPO2, Mr. Muddy Suitman