Where do I start? This is a question I am most often asked by students and clients when faced with the task of writing a document. They know what they want to say, but where to start seems to elude them.
My advice is to start anywhere and see what happens.
This may seem counter-intuitive; after all, no-one wants to waste time writing something only to find they’ve veered off in the wrong direction and then need to spend hours rewriting it. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Getting words on the page can actually help you organise your thoughts, and it’s those thoughts that you are trying to communicate.
So, here’s my four-step process for writing anything:
Firstly, jot down all your ideas. Think of this first draft as a ‘mood board’ or ‘Pinterest’ of ideas. At this stage anything goes – ideas, key points, newspaper articles, pictures, reports – nothing is off-limits, and no idea is a bad one.
Once you’ve got everything you could possibly say on the page, start thinking about who your audience is and what they are likely to want from your document. Are your readers professionals in the field who will understand difficult concepts and are looking for new research data? Or are they members of the general public who are looking for advice and will need jargon explained? Knowing who you are writing for and what they hope to get from your document will help you to refine what you say and how you say it.
For example, if you are writing an annual report for an aged care facility, this will be completely different in tone and content from a promotional brochure for families looking for care for their loved one. The annual report’s purpose is to report on, or perhaps analyse, performance against objectives; whereas the brochure’s purpose is to persuade families that this facility will care for their relative in a professional and respectful way. This second stage of the process takes time and care as it’s where you start tailoring your document so it does what it’s supposed to.
The next stage is to go through the document to make sure that everything flows in a clear and logical manner. One technique I find useful here is to write a three-word summary of each paragraph in the margins. Once I’ve done that, I can see if I’m repeating information in a couple of places or have too many ideas too close together. Cut and paste is your friend here, but only if you go through the final stage as well.
The final step in the process is to put it aside, even for only an hour, and then come back to the document with fresh eyes. This is so you can correct grammar and punctuation problems or make the writing clearer. This is also a good time to ask others to read the document for accuracy and flow. Sometimes we get too close to a document to see the stylistic problems or odd word choices we may make. It’s easy to skip this step, but it is critical in terms of how your document is perceived.
So that’s my four-step process in a nutshell. I hope you find it useful.