[writing long documents]
What’s the longest thing you’ve ever written? Despite the fact that attention spans are shorter than ever, there’s still a demand for white papers, research reports, and detailed PowerPoint presentations. I’ve been thinking lately about some of the skills and resources needed for these. Check out my list and feel free to add your own advice, too.
It takes serious staying power to write long documents.
I’ve had several very long projects in the last few years: a report on poverty for Step Up Silicon Valley, a curriculum for a program that helps at-risk youth at Catholic Charities, and a white paper for a software company. I also co-wrote a detailed research report about the health of residents of Santa Clara County. I’m getting ready to co-write another report on health for the County.
It’s really costly to go in the wrong direction on a large project.
Here are a few ideas about what writers need to be successful:
- Spend a lot of time up-front getting clear on the objectives, contents, and style. Ask your client to show you good and bad examples of similar documents. Ask them to explain the target audience in detail. Comb through the source material and assess it carefully.
- Assemble a good team. On most of the projects named above I had an editor or a co-writer. It’s worth splitting the fee to get a fresh perspective and a different set of eyes on a project. I also had a design and production team that I was very comfortable with and was very responsive to last-minute changes.
- Be mission-driven. Think about the outcome of the document and the good it can potentially do for the reader. Develop a lot of sympathy for these people and write like you are presenting them with a gift. It really does make a difference on those inevitable bad days when you just want to throw in the towel.
- Focus on structure. Get a good outline. Keep refining it; continually recheck the flow of ideas. Your prose style is very important but it won’t matter if your thoughts don’t interlock as tightly as a well-built Lego structure.
- Develop extra patience. You’ll need it for yourself, your clients, and your team members.
And whatever you do, don’t get paralyzed by the size of the task. Every piece of writing, no matter how long or complex, starts with a crappy first draft. For more about that, see my blog, [six rules of writing].
Photo credit: Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier on flickr. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.