Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing Workshop: The Drafting Table

Vicki Winslow rejoins us for this discussion on writing drafts.

Creating text for your business requires that you work through different versions on your way to your final draft. Here are my recommendations on how to approach each stage of the process:

The first draft should have all the basic information worked in, in the order you think it should be presented. It may be nothing more than your original outline (or, as I prefer to call it, list) with a little flesh added to the bones—a truly rough draft. Even if it is closer to final than that suggests, the piece should still be considered fluid. You may use it to seek preliminary opinions from other stakeholders, before too much time and effort has been invested. If you pass the first draft to others for review, mark the passages that you would like them to focus upon, or attach some questions such as: What have I missed? What would you add? If there are sections of the document that are not yet ready for writing—for example, if you're waiting for data that is still being compiled—note this in the draft and highlight it. I recommend highlighting any section in which information must be confirmed or added, or which is questionable in any way. That will make it less likely that the piece will go out the door with missing parts or misinformation.

A second draft is a refined, more fully gelled version of the first draft. There's still a possibility that it will undergo extensive revision, but it’s now time to treat it more seriously. Ask yourself if the length is right, or if it needs to be cut, or if sections should be rearranged for better impact. Even if there's no length requirement for the piece, are there sections that should be eliminated because they’re not serving a useful purpose? Most importantly, have you used phrases or jargon that is perfectly clear to you, but which may not be clear at all to someone outside your industry?  The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath mentions a study that I found fascinating (and useful). Elizabeth Newton, a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford in 1990, assigned roles to people as either a “tapper” or a “listener.” Tappers picked a song from a list and literally rapped the tune out on a table. A listener’s job was to guess the song title. By the end of the study, 120 songs had been tapped, and listeners had guessed exactly three correctly. Tappers were flabbergasted! How could the listeners be so dense, when the tune was so obvious? The answer was simple: The tapper heard the song in her head while tapping, so it was difficult for them to fathom that the listener couldn’t hear the same thing. The authors conclude: “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.” Check your second draft to make sure that you’re not tapping out a tune that is familiar to you, but which no one else will hear.

All of the subsequent drafts between second and final—and there may be any number of them, because you're the boss—are less likely to undergo dramatic edits. Check spelling, grammar, and punctuation more closely as you tweak the text. You'll also be gradually adding in all of the information that you may not have had during the first and second drafts.

The final draft is the one that goes to the printer, or in the envelope, or out into the world via the "Send" or "Publish" key. By this point, you and any colleagues who have been involved with the project know the text so well that none of you is reading it closely anymore. Two things can help. First, develop a simple office checklist. The list will vary depending on your specific needs; it will also evolve over time.  Here are some of the items it might include: 
  • Title
  • Author Name
  • Page numbers
  • Subheadings
  • Paragraphs
  • Tables and graphs
  • References
  • Data
  • Font
  • Highlighting
  • Spelling
  • Grammar
Initial each item before you release the final draft. This forces you to look at the document with fresh eyes as you review some of the mundane but necessary elements that make a piece readable and accurate. Is the title shown the same one that was finalized in a meeting, or is it a leftover placeholder that you intended to change? Is the page number correct on each page? Are all the subheadings in the same style? Are any tables or graphs split between pages? Is there leftover highlighting where you needed to confirm a name or add data?   

Second, have someone trustworthy and completely uninvolved to this point read the document. He will see where you used "there" instead of "their" (it happens to us all) and other mistakes that can slip past a spell-check. If there simply isn’t someone else and you have the time, put the document aside for a day or a week, and then read it again yourself.

Happy drafting. Let me know if you have any questions; I’ve been known to tap out an incomprehensible tune, myself.

For free answers to specific questions about grammar or writing, email Vicki at with "Business Writing" in the subject line. You can also follow Vicki by visiting her blog (Vicki Winslow's Blog).

Friday, September 9, 2011

Writing Workshop: A Full Bag of Tricks

Guest contributor, Vicki Winslow, kindly joins us again with insight into the writing process.

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public. – Winston Churchill

A writing project is an adventure, and one of the first and most important tricks to success is to treat it like one. Gear yourself up for it by anticipating how well it is going to go and how much fun it will be. If it helps, imagine launching a kayak into a river or floating in an inner tube down a mountain stream. The words, like the water, will flow easily and take you exactly where you want to go. Wear a helmet.

The second trick is to maintain perspective. Remind yourself that you are good at what you do. You are intelligent, and capable, and interesting. Once you leap into your writing project, all of those characteristics—and thousands more that are unique to you—will be at your disposal to get you moving. When negative thoughts intrude (I hate to write, I will never get this project completed, my English teacher Miss Grimace told me I'd never amount to anything) dismiss them and replace them with a positive thought. If you can't think of a positive thought, use this one: Soon this project will be done and I will never have to think about it again. It's at least better than the negative thoughts. Plus, it's absolutely true.

The third trick is to focus your attention. Your project will not be as successful if you are not giving it your full attention. This does not mean straining and forcing your mind to labor over the task; it means thinking about your topic and your purpose and then applying the first two tricks by reminding yourself: This is an adventure I am well-equipped to enjoy. It also means carrying the attention with you as you go about the more routine parts of your day—touch on it lightly as you drive, as you have lunch, between other tasks.

Enhanced Creativity Through Mental Tricks
If after gearing up mentally you find that you still face a blank screen or page with an equally blank mind, try this: Recall a time when you were feeling particularly creative. It can be from as far back as kindergarten, when you were happily stringing colorful beads on a piece of yarn. Writing is simply a more complex type of bead-stringing, after all. Banish your fears and concerns about it, and try to regain that spirit of calm absorption you feel while doing something relaxing and enjoyable. Alternatively, visualize a special success that you have achieved. Remember in detail the elatedness, the feeling of accomplishment you felt. Revel in it. Isn't it wonderful that you can bring back that same feeling right now? And isn't it much nicer to look at the blank page while feeling that way than it was to slump down and bang your forehead on the keyboard in frustration?

Tricks to Get Started
Beginnings of any kind are tough, so sometimes I postpone writing the beginning and write other parts of my document first. Whatever your writing project is, make a list of all the elements that must be contained within it. Keep the list handy so that you can tick them off as you write each section. Notice I call this a list instead of an outline. They are the same thing, but I hate outlines and love lists. This list serves two purposes: It reminds you of what will need to be in your document (like a recipe!), and it gets you started in a fairly painless way.

When all else fails, another trick I use to get started is to pretend that I am writing a letter to my friend, Ruby. I write to Ruby regularly, and it's funny how helpful it is to put down, "Dear Ruby," and then launch into a letter telling her about, oh, nonprofit board governance. I think this trick lightens my mood enough for me to get over myself and just get writing. Try this with your first draft, and later you can rewrite or simply delete the silly parts that served only to prod you forward. (Oddly, even when I don't begin with "Dear Ruby" I find that my first paragraph is often completely unnecessary, and with only a tiny amount of tweaking the second paragraph makes a better beginning–probably because I dance around a lot as I try to get started, and I say too much. By the second paragraph I've settled down. This may be true for you, too.)

The Sincerest Form of Flattery Trick
Obviously, I don't write to Ruby exactly the same way I would write a proposal for a client. So if I begin by writing "Dear Ruby," sooner or later I will have to pick a more proper tone for my actual audience. Try to write the way you would talk to a colleague or customer. Remember to keep the feeling of flow, of a natural, positive adventure.

If you're still having difficulty, think about an author whose tone appeals to you and imitate it. This is a powerful tool. It may also help you when you're stuck and not sure where to go next. Pick a favorite author and use one of her chapter titles, sentences, or subheadings to start you down a slightly different path. Again, you may end up deleting whole paragraphs, but they may help get you through a difficult patch.

Difficult Patches Happen, the Trick Is Not to Let Them Thwart You
If you don't like the wording you've used and a thesaurus isn't helping, it might be time to call in another reader. The same is true if you're stuck in terms of the general direction of the piece; a colleague who understands your intention can be invaluable in helping you figure out what works in your writing, and what doesn't. That being said, there are situations in which it is best to let the piece be for a little while, if your time frame allows. Walk away from it, do something else, forget about it entirely for at least an hour. When you come back to it, you may see right away what it needs. If you don't, then consider the possibility that it may be perfectly fine as written.

Loosen your shoulders, consider what you need to accomplish, and approach it with joy and anticipation in the firm knowledge that you have everything you need to get the job done, and done well.

For free answers to specific questions about grammar and writing, email Vicki at with "Business Writing" in the subject line. You can also follow Vicki by visiting her blog (Vicki Winslow's Blog).