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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

    My English Teacher Done Me Wrong

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    If you're like most people, English classes in middle school and high school were pretty much a drag. Time and again you were assigned to read some decades-old novel and write a report on its symbolism, and chances are your papers came back with nothing but red marks about grammar and punctuation errors. As a result, you learned to hate "Literature" and believe that writing is a loathsome chore. Heck, I have a degree in English, and I tend to feel that way about classroom writing.

    Which is sad, because reading and writing are merely two facets of language, and language is a jewel that belongs to everyone.

    So let's forget about literature and writing for a moment, and just consider language.

    Each of us learns to speak quite naturally at an early age. Toddlers chatter away, all cheerful, without any self-consciousness. They quickly learn to adapt to exceptions to grammar rules ("You saw a doggy, Sal, not seen it."), without feeling chastised. Conversing is a pleasure.

    Next, we encounter books. Children's books are such a joy! I still remember reading and rereading Go, Dog. Go! and If I Ran the Zoo as a child. There is an excitement in learning to write our names, too, and sending those first few letters to Grandma. Part of what makes this reading and writing so natural is that it's self-centered. Which is to say, we care about it. It matters to us.

    Research shows that even as adults, we have much more success writing about something that matters to us. We're hoping to communicate something to someone else, which is exactly what language is all about. But remember, language is only a tool for the task of communication.

    And this is where most of our English teachers "done us wrong" (to borrow a common Blues refrain). First, they tried to make the tool more important than the task. Second, they required us to write about things that mattered to them, not so much to us. And finally, they didn't even join us in writing: Their comments on our papers were perfunctory, and they certainly didn't provide the sort of interactive workshop common to other craft classes. Think about any art, music, or even woodworking classes you took, and how much more hands-on the instructor was - how little lecture occurred.

    Our English teachers tried to steal our birthright, tried to rob us of our ownership of language. Ah, but we can settle that old score. How, you ask?

    First, go read a book. Read even something difficult, and don't let the ghost of old English teachers lurk over your shoulder. Reading should be private time between just you and the author, having a chat, the author doing most of the talking, but you raising questions as you go, waiting for answers to be revealed. (If you remember, reading as a child was sometimes difficult, but the wonderful discoveries outweighed the unknown words, and you grew. Reading as an adult should be the same.)

    Second, quit believing that you don't know how to write. Writing is really just speaking on paper. Even better, after a first draft you can go back and change what you say, which isn't possible with regular speech. And remember, spelling and grammar don't matter until the very end, like brushing the lint from a suit. Plus, it's fair to ask for help if these are not your forte. (I'm betting Donald Trump doesn't spell-check his own work.)

    Our English teachers may have done us wrong, but that doesn't mean we can't move on and have a beautiful relationship with our language. Here's wishing you the best.

    - Les

    Clocks and Clouds

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
    God said "Let Newton be" and all was light.

    - Alexander Pope

    It did not last: the devil, shouting "Ho.
    Let Einstein be," restored the status quo.

    - J. C. Squire

    Sir Isaac Newton was a genius. Faced with the problem of predicting a cannonball's trajectory, he invented calculus. At least, that's the way my college math prof told the story. From that starting point, Newton presented civilization with a clockwork image of the universe that saw God in His heaven and everything right with the world below.

    Then Einstein came along, pointed out some gravitational anomalies involving Mercury's orbit around the Sun, and mucked things all up. Sure, he offered a unified theory to account for much of it, something to do with time stretching or compressing near the speed of light, but the image he offered of the universe is much murkier. And that's the one we're now having to live with.

    Wired magazine's April 19 article "Breaking Things Down to Particles Blinds Scientists to Big Picture" presents another example of this dichotomy between learning by disassembly and by grasping at enormity. In that essay, Jonah Lehrer mentions science philosopher Karl Popper, from whom the "clocks and clouds" distinction is borrowed.

    That distinction reminds me of another classification system - the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) - specifically it's Sensing/Intuition category. Another old college prof characterized the difference between those poles by describing a twenty-minute assignment to study his lecture hall. The pure "Intuitors," he said, would be back ten minutes early with a general description of the building's shape, size, color, and "mood." The pure "Sensors," he continued, would lose track of time altogether while counting the number of rows of bricks, how many bricks in each row, the mineral composition of each brick, and so on.

    Which brings me to a new realization about approaches to writing and to teaching writing. Like Newton, clockmakers, and MBTI Sensors, some people look to grammar as building blocks, hoping to promote better writing by focusing on mechanics. Others, like Einstein, Lehrer, and MBTI Intuitors, envision writing as a fuzzy process, in which meaning is perpetually teased out by discovery.

    Happily, Popper presents the world as both clocks and clouds, not either/or. For most purposes - such as carpentry - Newtonian physics is just fine. For a Mars mission, however, gravitational effects on time itself make more advanced mathematics essential. Similarly, writing can be improved quite a lot just by review of grammar and spelling. But larger, weightier topics require a messy immersion in some fogginess before anything begins to become clear.

    Here's hoping that I've not left things too foggy in this blog post. As always, comments are welcome.

    - Lester Smith

    Free the Angel in Your Writing

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

    - Michelangelo

    When it comes right down to it, writing is a lot like marble sculpting. The sculptor starts by sketching, the writer by jotting down ideas and arranging an outline (at least a rough list). The sculptor turns the sketches into finished plans from various angles; the writer generates a first draft.

    Now comes the real work. The sculptor tackles the marble itself, chipping away everything that doesn't match the drawings. During the process, properties of this particular block of stone may require adaptation - whether to avoid a flaw or take advantage of a previously undiscovered beauty. In some cases, a limb may have to be sculpted from a separate piece of stone and attached, to make the sculpture work. Similarly, the writer must evaluate the first draft, looking for weak spots and unpredicted strengths. Some parts may have to be trimmed, others added, to suit the unfolding sense of purpose and meet the audience's needs.

    Once the overall shape of a sculpture or piece of writing has been finalized, the work of polishing can begin. Surface details such as the contour of tendons and veins can be brought out in the stone; specific sentence structures and word choices can be adapted in the writing to improve the voice. Finally, last bits of roughness are buffed from the statue, as a spell check and grammar check look for surface imperfections in the writing.

    I'd only argue that Michelangelo should have said "an angel" rather than "the angel." An infinite number of angels could reside within any single block of stone, though the sculptor's work can reveal only one. In a like fashion, a piece of writing has nearly infinite possibilities when the writer starts, but each decision along the way - informed by the reader's needs - narrows the writing's focus, leading to a specific result.

    What do you think? Has the angel in this essay been effectively revealed? Would you express the writing process differently? What metaphor might work better? I'd love to hear your comments.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo: Justus Hayes / Shoes on Wires / shoesonwires.com

    Perfect Correspondence, in Spite of the Weather

    Wednesday, April 07, 2010

    We blame a lot of things on the weather. Have you ever noticed that?

    "Gosh, my knee's been aching. I think it's the rain. And the kids are squirrely, too. Must be that low front." Maybe this tact could work for our writing: "This letter is awful. Must be the dew point." Nope, doesn't make it. When it comes to poor writing - from its sketchy content to the last misplaced comma, the weather is no excuse.

    Here's a story for you. My aunt, born in 1914, was a secretary all her life, and from all reports, she was a highly valued employee. She had attended a small business college in her hometown, and I bothered to dig up a copy of the institution's catalog. At the top of the page introducing the faculty, this quotation appears: "He who cares not to do a thing hides behind the excuse that it cannot be done."

    Well, Aunt Elsie took the challenge. No one was going to tell her that perfection in her correspondence was impossible. When she finished a letter or report, her facts were straight, her t's were crossed, i's dotted, and spelling impeccable - and this was well before the days of word-processing programs, and in all kinds of weather. I guess she was an expert of sorts, having taken 60 hours of Business English, 85 hours of Business Writing, 30 hours of Spelling (yes, spelling), and who knows what else.

    Today, as always, we arrive in the workplace with varying degrees of talent and preparedness for the writing we must do. But there is help available - from writing handbooks and aids, both in print and online, to the invaluable resource of our coworkers. The peer review (a.k.a. getting help) does actually work. And there are still Aunt Elsie types in our midst, ready to read the paragraphs and sections we're stuck on and offer a few helpful comments.

    So, assuming you've nixed the old excuse that it can't be done, and ignoring the weather forecast, how do you personally bring your business writing to that coveted point of perfection?

    - Lois Krenzke

    Photo by Jsome1