Clear Writing–Why You Need a Plan

Yet we may not think twice about starting a writing project before we’ve planned what needs to be said. The shorter the piece of writing, the more likely this is to happen. Maybe you think it’s grade-school behaviour to outline an email. I’m here to tell you that those outlines your teacher made you write serve an important function. Yes, you can write an email without doing an outline. You’ll likely land on something useful and you can always write more emails later to clarify. Yep, you guessed it! Gathering your thoughts helps make sure that nothing is missed. A quick handwritten list of the points you want to cover is generally all you need for short pieces of writing.

Involve the whole crew
With written communications that are more involved, it is often essential to share your ideas not only about content, but also approach. Here’s where the concept of an outline turns out to be too limiting. You want to share the audience and purpose of the document, explain the scope, and list the intended content. You also want to tie into strategic priorities of the business wherever possible. Make no mistake. Just because you’ve been asked to write the document, doesn’t mean you don’t have to sell its value to the organization. But that’s not all, you also want to give everyone a feel for how the content will be presented.

I think document plan is a better term. It’s best to keep the document plan short: less than two pages if possible and never more than ten. Share your vision with management and other stakeholders. Encourage meaningful discussion and incorporate their feedback.

A good business writer relies on a team of involved stakeholders and experts. Sharing ideas at the conceptual stage saves mountains of time later. It increases buy-in and it also makes it more likely that the writing will achieve the business goals everyone had in mind when it was started.

A document plan checklist
For best results, include the following in the document plan:

  • Audience profile: Describe the educational background, skills and learning style of the readers. Don’t forget to include when and how they will use the document. If there are several types of readers, profile each one.

  • Document purpose: Identify the specific needs that the document will meet. The more accurately you pinpoint the purpose of the document, the more useful it will be.

  • Related strategic objectives and business goals: Sell the importance of the writing project by showing how it ties into the strategic objectives and business goals of the organization. This helps ensure that you will be given the resources you need to do the project well.

  • Measures of success: Explain how the organization will know that the document has served its intended purpose. For example, if the purpose is to help software users solve technical problems, track the number of calls to support. It’s not enough to promise that a document will help the organization. If you really want to show its value, you must prove it.

  • Writing style and tone: Describe the style and tone you plan to use. Include an few sentences as an example. Identify the style guide you will follow.

  • Document scope: Explain what will be included and what will not be included. Be as specific as possible and encourage discussion. It’s way more efficient to discuss scope at this stage than in the middle of writing.

  • Document organization: Provide a draft of the Table of Contents and explain the philosophy behind the design.

In any given writing project, planning needs to be at least 25% of the effort. This is how it works best, not just for you as the writer, but for the people who have invested in the project.

I’ll go into more detail on some of the elements of a document plan in later blogs. In the meantime, let’s talk about your experience. What has worked well for you? What has been challenging?

© Debbie Bateman 2018


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