The difference between effective, efficient writers and the rest is a matter of habit. The effective writers regularly and consistently do things that other writers only do sporadically. That’s why they get so much done.
Having written millions of words for business since 1982, I’ve got some of those habits figured out. Do these things – and do them consistently – and the quality of your writing projects will increase, even as you produce them more time-efficiently. This advice applies whether you’re writing reports, blog posts, or press releases – anything that requires planning and reviews from others.
Also check out my recent webinar on The Value of Bullshit-Free Writing here.
1. Plan effectively with a fat outline.
Before you write, you must prepare and do research. The end product of this effort is not a draft, it’s a plan. But how do you know if the plan is any good?
Your plan should include a list of people you will interview and other sources of data. It should also include an outline. But traditional outlines suck. They’re just a list of topics in order. They’re easy to write because they include no detail.
Instead of a traditional outline, make a fat outline. A fat outline is more like a treatment for a novel or screenplay. It flips back and forth between headings and actual snippets of content. It tells a story. You don’t need to pay attention to grammar; the fat outline can include sentence fragments, diagrams, lists, or anything else that indicates where you’re going with the text.
The discipline of creating a fat outline prepares you for writing, and also enables your collaborators and editors to get a better idea of what you’ll be producing.
2. Write titles, openers, and summaries twice per draft.
Document and blog titles are crucial. So are the ledes – the first few sentences. And for reports, executive summaries are the most valuable thing you can write.
To ensure quality in these elements, write them at the start of each draft. When you complete the draft, you’ll know a lot more about what you’re writing. So go back and rewrite the title, opener, and executive summary based on your new knowledge.
Repeat with each new draft – rewrite the title and opener at the start, and rewrite them again when you finish.
Do this and you’ll have put twice as much thought into these short elements as you have into everything else in the draft. They’re worth it.
3. Get an editing partner.
No matter how good you are, you’ll benefit from another perspective. Find somebody you like, but who thinks a little differently from you.
Get her review on each draft you like (and, of course, you’ll need to review her drafts as well). The additional perspective will make your writing better, and you’ll get out of the echo chamber in your own skull.
4. Get used to cutting, not adding.
Shorter is nearly always better. You won’t get better writing by just adding more to patch what you write.
Every draft you create, look for what to cut. Cut unneeded openers and warmups. Cut redundant arguments. Make long sentences short. Replace paragraphs with bullets, bullets with lists, and lists with diagrams.
Imagine that each word costs you $10. Where are you going to economize?
5. Take charge of the review process.
Managing reviewers sucks up time and makes drafts flabby. In the WOBS Writing Survey of 547 business writers, only 32% agreed that their process for collecting and combining feedback worked well.
To solve this problem, you need a disciplined review process. For each draft, assign reviewers to specific elements, such as reviewing structure, assuring technical accuracy, or editing language. Hold them to a common deadline. And insist that all reviews use the markup features of tools like Microsoft Word and Google Docs. (Red ink on paper is no way to submit reviews in the age of the Internet.)
As you combine these reviews, don’t just accept or reject suggestions. Ask yourself, why is this reviewer having trouble? And then fix the problem using your own writing talent. That way you’ll remain in control of the spirit of what you write, even as you address the issues that reviewers raise.