Three key things to ask before you ‘tidy up’ a document.

It’s a quick ‘tidy-up’

We’ve all been in this situation. Your boss sends you an email at 2 pm on a Friday afternoon and asks you to ‘tidy up’ a document.

‘Don’t worry,’ they say. ‘All the information is there. All you have to do is run your eye over it and check for spelling mistakes and so on. It’s a bit long (it needs to be around 400 words), so feel free to delete anything unnecessary. It shouldn’t take long – half an hour max. I’d do it myself but you’re so good at this sort of stuff.’

They sign off with a jaunty P.S. ‘The communication team want the final copy by 10am Monday. Thanks. You’re a star.’

Of course, you’re a bit annoyed as you have other work you wanted to finish before the weekend, but if it’s really only half an hour’s work, then you should be able to fit it in.

The document is terrible

Then you open the file, and your heart sinks. The tone and style are all over the place. Some parts are informal and chatty, others are jargon-laden and seem to be in legal language. And the layout varies from text blocks to tables to bulleted lists. The document has clearly been put together by either a group of people or someone who has taken their information from a range of sources and you have no idea what should stay and what should go.

You know you’re never going to get this done by the deadline unless you do something drastic.

So, what do you do?

Establish the brief

Once you’ve finished cursing your boss under your breath, take a moment to send an email to your manager, subject line ‘URGENT’, asking three key things that will save your sanity:

  • What is the purpose of this document?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What do you want the reader to do once they’ve read it?

Once you have an answer to the above questions, you can then decide on an overall tone, what to leave in and what to exclude, and how to structure the document.

To read more about my process, check out my post: ‘How to edit a dog’s breakfast‘.

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