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).

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