Every successful writer has some kind of formula for writing–a process or workflow that usually brings out his or her best work. This morning, I decided to write mine down. It consists of 7 basic steps: outline, prioritize, draft, rest, reorganize, rest, and chop.
- Outline. Develop a high-level topical outline and set targets for how long each section should be. If you’re still not sure of the actual document length, make decisions based on % of the total piece—in other words, decide the relative weighting/importance of each section. But give yourself permission to change everything as you go along. That’s a key part of the creative process, even in the stuffiest kind of business writing. Also, don’t make this outline too detailed if you have a tendency to get stuck in this part of the process.
- Prioritize. Go through all of your sources—published materials, emails, and meeting notes—and prioritize them according to their relevancy to your project as well as their accuracy and authority. These don’t always coincide neatly, so you may have to make some carefully choices.
- Draft. Just get started writing a crappy first draft. Take the best bits from all of your sources in priority order, and add your own thoughts as they come along. Don’t over-think, don’t start editing, and don’t over-organize at this point.
- Rest. Step away from the computer. Go on to another project. Let this one rest as long as you possibly can.
- Organize. Go back over your crappy first draft to see if everything flows and if your outline worked. Regroup thoughts into more logical sections. Break them up into smaller chunks for better understanding. Then browse through just the section and subsection headings to see if they give the impression of a logical chain of thought.
- Rest. If you can, give yourself some more distance before you start the final version, which might involved some painful cuts. You just can’t be too close to the material in step 7.
- Chop. Summon your strength and silence your ego. It’s time to slash and burn anything that doesn’t strictly reinforce the purpose of the communication—or that you couldn’t easily defend in a court of law. Remove the nice-to-have but nonessential copy. Shorten your paragraphs. Simplify your language wherever something is not crystal clear. Then go back and check all segues between your subsections/major sections one last time.
This is my process. Your mileage may vary, of course.
As I said in a previous post, [you’re either a writer or you’re not], I’m not sure the extent to which writing can be taught. But processes can always be refined.