Things to think about when writing…

– Adapted from “Handbook of Technical Writing” (Alred, Brusaw, Oliu, 2012).

Here’s a very abbreviated guide I made based on a similar guide in the above-mentioned book.  I summarized some stuff and added some of my own information to it, too.  I tried to condense the information into a brief guide—hopefully you can use it to make your writing as effective as possible.

Preparation:

Establish your purposeWhat do you want your readers to know or do after they read your document?  Be specific, what exactly do you want to tell them? (for example, why you have this policy in place).  What exactly do you want them to do? (fill out a form, sign up for a class, etc.).

Identify your audience (readers)- Who are your readers?  How do they feel about your topic? Bored, excited, interested, apprehensive?  What level of expertise in the subject do they have?

Consider the context- What current events or recent developments in the workplace might influence your audience?  What is your relationship to the readers, and what style should you use? Formal? Casual?

Determine your scope of coverage-  How much information do you need to present?  Are you trying to teach something, or convince your readers of something?  Or, are you just trying to give them a brief introduction to something?

Select the medium- What is the best way to reach your intended readers?  An email? A web page? A memo on the company’s bulletin board?

Research:

Brainstorm: What do you know about your subject already?  Write down anything that comes to mind, then write down any questions or ideas that those first thoughts may provoke.  Ask who, what, when, where, and why for anything that you think of.

Conduct research- There are two main types of research.  There’s primary research—things like note-taking, observation, interviews, and meetings with interested or involved parties.  Then there’s secondary research—reading books, reports, websites, podcasts (stuff that’s already packaged for you).

Take notes- Don’t be too brief—can you understand what you’re writing a week or two later?

Interview people-  Consider (but ask permission first) using a tape recorder to interview someone—it’s much more natural and comfortable to the person being interviewed than constantly stopping or looking down to take notes during the conversation.

Create questionnaires-  Use these to gather information from a lot of people quickly, or reach people that can be difficult to reach otherwise.  However, don’t expect the information to be as high quality as a face-to-face interview.

Avoid plagiarism- Be sure to give credit to quoted sources, and request permission before distributing or modifying material for your own use.  “When in doubt, cite the source.”

Organization:

Choose the best method to tell your story- You can use many different “methods of development”—cause and effect, chronological order, comparison of multiple different options, methods of your topic, definition of your topic, order of importance, or sequential (like a how-to guide).  Make sure your method aligns with your purpose.

Outline notes and ideas-  Using your chosen “method of development,” build an outline, then organize your notes and research into the outline to give your document a basic structure.

Develop visuals- Using your outline, you may find parts of your document that can be explained better or emphasized with things like graphs, flow charts, or photographs.

Consider your layout-  Does it need to be fancy, flashy, or basic and easy to read?  Take advantage of larger fonts and white space between paragraphs to make reading easier.  Don’t be afraid to emphasize important points with short (maybe even one-sentence) paragraphs.

Write ethically-  Don’t try to avoid responsibility.  Don’t obscure issues or present inaccurate data to prove a point.  Don’t self-serve with misleading data.  Don’t hide the truth by using abstract words, or words that can be confused by your audience.

Use the appropriate words- Don’t be vague—make sure you tell your reader specific things (not “it was a success”, but “it successfully accomplished the repeal of x law.”  Know your audience—avoid trade jargon when addressing the public.  In other cases, trade jargon might be important to use when writing to people in a specific industry or movement.

Eliminate grammar problems- Be sure that your writing means what it’s supposed to—if in doubt, use the simpler word.  Read through your work—If it doesn’t sound right to you, rewrite or eliminate the passage until it makes sense and flows better.

Writing a Draft:

Select a point of view- First person (I) sounds friendlier, Second person (you) is good for instructions, and Third person (He) is more impersonal, but that can be the best choice for some documents.

Adopt an appropriate tone- You may choose a friendly tone when writing to co-workers or friends, a more formal tone when writing to managers, or use an impersonal style when addressing a larger number of people.

Use effective Sentence construction- To keep the reader engaged, use an active voice (the salesmen said sales were higher), rather than a passive voice (sales were reported to be higher).  A good way to check is to make sure someone is doing something in the sentence (salesmen were saying).

Construct effective paragraphs- Paragraphs are used to break up topics, establish flow, and emphasize certain points.  Again, don’t be afraid to shorten paragraphs to emphasize points or keep the reader’s attention.

Use quotation and paraphrasing-  Use quotes to emphasize points and to add credibility to your writing.  Use paraphrasing to pick out the essential ideas of someone else’s work (just don’t forget to give them credit).

Write an introduction- There are numerous ways to open a document- pay attention to your readers and craft the introduction accordingly.  It could be brief (friendly correspondence), or formal. It could also have a summary included for an audience that doesn’t intend to read the entire document.

Write a conclusion-  Tie your main ideas together and make a final point.

Choose a Title- Depending on your audience, this may be the only thing the reader uses when they’re choosing to read or not.  Be sure that the title identifies your topic and reflects the style of the writing.

Revision:

Check for unity and coherence- Be sure that your writing stays focused.  Keep your document centered on a main idea and don’t wander off-topic.

Check for sentence variety- Sentences that are the same length and style bore the reader.  Stringing too many clauses together, or having too many ideas within a sentence, can confuse a reader.

Check for clarity- Let your writing sit unread for a while, then make sure you can understand and follow your own words.  If possible, allow a friend or co-worker to read and comment on the work, too.  Often, writers tire of reading their own writing and miss the meanderings, grammatical errors, and vague sentences that fresh readers will immediately notice.

Review mechanics and punctuation-  Last one- be sure that you didn’t miss any punctuation.

 

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