The power of agile writing

Two simple steps 
Achieving robust design is a matter of balancing strength and flexibility. The software industry has known this for decades. They understand the value of releasing small parts of a product to beta users early. They call it agile development for good reason.

Being agile is important in business writing too. In business writing, the strength comes from a solid document plan. The flexibility comes from welcoming adjustments as soon as you’ve begun writing.

Here it is in two simple steps:

  1. Get a basic version of a sample piece of content into the hands of readers as early as possible.
  2. Incorporate their feedback into continued development.

What happens if you’re not agile 
How many times have you worked on a large document only to have its basic approach radically shifted after the first draft? Everyone agreed on the approach before you started. But once they saw the first draft, the needs that seemed so clear have grown more complex, or the solution that everyone thought would work does not perform as expected.

When this happens, the temptation is to downplay concerns and push forward. After all, if everyone has been waiting for a complete draft, a significant amount of time has likely passed. In the face of looming deadlines, everyone may agree to accept a document that does not work as well as it could. Not only is this demoralizing for the development team, it is demotivating for the readers. Worse still, it’s a compromise that could have been avoided.

Expect adjustments and do them early 
The solution is simple: expect adjustments and plan to take care of them early. If you’re developing training materials, rough out one lesson. If you’re writing a report, rough out a short section. If you’re writing a collection of procedures or a policy, rough out two pages. Don’t worry that the wording may need to be tweaked as you develop more content. Get it out there quickly and get feedback before you continue.

This goes against the perfectionist nature that helps make a writer good at their job and it takes practice for readers to get comfortable with giving feedback on a preliminary sample, but the benefits are worth the effort. You’ll have better designed documents at the first draft stage and you’ll make the best use of available resources.

Often the people assigned to review content are subject matter experts. They know a lot about the subject, but they may not be the people who will be using the content. Those people are often not experts. Instead, they are busy people who want clear answers in as little time as possible.

The ideal solution is to get feedback from a small group of people who’ll actually be using the content. If that’s not practical, there are other things you can do. New employees often have a fresh perspective and are glad to help. Sales staff or customer support people can also be a good source of feedback.

Talk to the feedback group about their needs, ask for an honest assessment of how well the sample content meets those needs, and welcome ideas on improvement. Once you’ve got a clear sense of how the design needs to be adjusted, present your ideas to the development team. Now you’re ready to push forward on completing a first draft. What is more, the first draft is more likely to meet with stronger approval.

© Debbie Bateman 2018


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