1. Be Able to Analyze the Writing Situation
Everything you write has three elements that determine what and how you will write: your topic (what you are writing about), your purpose (why you are writing) and your audience, or reader, (who you are writing for). Before you write a word, make sure you have clearly identified each of the three. Together, your topic, purpose and audience define the writing situation.
Topics pose less of a problem for most writers than purposes and audiences. That's because we usually know what we are going to write about. It is the purpose and audience that will determine exactly what content we include, the tone and style we use, and considerations such as the document length, medium and format.
Identifying Your Purpose
Before you do any planning, ask yourself what your purpose for writing is. What do you want to have happen as a result of the report, e-mail, proposal, or manual you are embarking on?
Experienced professional writers often write out their purpose statement before they draft anything else. It's a useful habit to get into. For one thing, you will never find yourself halfway through a document and still trying to figure out why you're writing. It will keep you focused, and that focus will be conveyed to your reader.
Analyzing Your Audience
Along with your purpose, you need to be clear about your intended readeryour audience. As a government writer, you will always be writing for someone, within or outside your organization. Thinking about that reader before you start writing will help you make decisions about content and style based on what your reader needs and wants from your document.
To clarify your picture of your reader's needs, ask yourself these questions.
- Who are my readers? Are they experts, decision makers, specialists, superiors, the public, learners?
- What do they know? What is their background knowledge, experience, training?
- What do they need to know? What is essential to my reader and what is not?
- How will they use the information? As a reference? To learn how? To make a decision?
- What is their point of view on the topic? Receptive or suspicious? Bored or interested? Friendly or hostile? What considerations do I have to make to accommodate my reader's attitude toward this document?
- What is my relationship to the reader? Are my readers my supervisors, clients, subordinates, co-workers? How does my relationship affect my choice of content and tone?
- Do I have more than one audience? Which audience does my purpose most clearly target? How can I help my other readers?
All the choices you make, from the document length to the font size you use, should reflect careful consideration of your audience's needs and purposes.
2. Apply the Writing Process Model
One of the secrets of many successful professional writers is that they understand writing as a process made up of a number of stages. Inexperienced writers often think that the way to write a document is to start at the beginning and keep at it until the document's done (or procrastinate as long as possible and then start at the beginning). Experienced writers view writing as a process, usually described as having five stages (there are many variations of this model, with more or fewer steps, but all cover the same process):
- Planning: The planning (or pre-writing) stage comprises all the activities that go into a writing project aside from the actual writing. As part of your planning, you determine the purpose and audience of the document, brainstorm the topics to be covered, and consider any time or other constraints on the document. It is also the stage at which you decide on the document's content and design and conduct your research. Once you have done your preliminary planning, you are in a position to create an outline of your document for use in writing your first draft.
- Make sure to read: LBH, "Using a Formal Outline," p. 49
- Drafting: The initial draft is the stage at which your plans become text on the page. Experienced writers use their outline as the backbone of their draft, expanding each point into sentences and paragraphs. Drafting is best done without too much thought to the actual choice of words, or to punctuation, spelling or mechanics. The purpose is to put flesh on the structure of your document. Refinements come at the next three stages.
- Revising: Once you have a draft in hand, you're in a position to look critically at what you are actually producing. Inexperienced writers often try to skip this stage, preferring either to get it right the first time or to accept their draft document as "good enough." Both attitudes are misguided. Trying to get your sentences right the first time you write them will end up taking you much longer than necessary. You may also be reluctant to edit work that you feel you've already put enough time into. However, remember that a first draft is not finished! It always can be improved by more work.
- Editing: The editing stage gives you a chance to fine-tune your ideas and words. It is best done after you have made all structural changes, and any content revisions, reorganization and additions are completed -- in other words, when the document appears ready to print. Of course, it's not ready to print. Now you have the task of checking each sentence and paragraph for clarity, conciseness, accuracy, correctness, audience considerations and readability.
- Proofreading: The last stage in the writing process is checking your final draft for the tiny errors that you might have missedor introduced into your textduring the editing stage. No matter what the length or purpose of your document, always allow yourself enough time to proofread. It's those missed errors that leave readers with the impression that you haven't given your writing enough care (no matter how impressive the rest of the document is!).
Although the writing process appears to progress from stage to stage, most writers do not apply the model in a linear fashion. For example, while you're revising a draft, you may in fact be back to the planning stage; even at the editing stage, you may discover that you need to revise a whole section of a document. The best way, in fact, to view writing is as a process that has many stages, each of which fulfills a vital function in producing a well-written and well-designed document.
- Make sure to read: Chapters 1 and 2 of LBH, pp. 2073. These chapters provide a more detailed description of how to analyze the writing situation and how to apply the writing process.
3. Adapt Documents for New Purposes and Audiences
Many documents written in the public sector are repurposed and repackaged versions of the same information. One reason for this is that the same information must often be made accessible to different audiences. As an example, consider provincial learning assessment results gathered by the Ministry of Education. They first appear in a lengthy report by the researchers. The major findings may then be presented in summary form for educators, turned into a much shorter and more readable brochure for parents, and written up in the form of a press release for newspapers and other public media.
Summarizing, paraphrasing and simplifying information are important writing skills to master. We will be dealing with them throughout the course.
4. Write in Plain Language
A readable text is one that an intended reader can understand without difficulty. Whether you are writing for a superior, for a peer, or for the public, you will save time and effort on your reader's part if you aim for a simple, clear, readable style.
We will be looking at the importance of writing in plain language, and how it is done, in the coming weeks.
5. Know How to Research Effectively
In government, research and writing often go hand in hand. Whether you are preparing a briefing note, developing a proposal or writing an analytical report, your information must be the product of thorough, balanced, valid, reliable and up-to-date research.
We will not be addressing research directly in this course, but you will be doing research and will have several opportunities to discuss your research questions in class.
6. Write and Edit Collaboratively
In many government workplaces, collaboration is built into the writing process. As an example, consider how a major report or policy document may be developed. First, a number of employees are assigned writing and research responsibilities for the project. Their work is submitted to one or more employees who have been assigned responsibility for producing a draft document from the various submissions. The draft document is circulated to managers for comment and then presented at a meeting in order to gather input from the original researchers and others. Finally, a number of people edit the document before the final draft is prepared.
Collaborative writing projects comprise numerous tasks. These include scheduling the project, managing the people involved, collaborating on development, tracking the document's progress and dealing with publishing tasks. When they work well, collaborative writing projects have all the advantages that come from drawing from a larger pool of knowledge and expertise. However, they can turn into nightmares of inefficiency, redundancy, interpersonal conflict and foot-dragging if they are not well managed.
While you wont be writing collaboratively in this course, you will have opportunities to practice peer-editing and group work.
7. Use Word Processing and Other Software Effectively
The days when government managers could count on secretaries or other staff to write for them are long gone. In many government offices, you will be expected to produce entire documents yourselffrom the planning stage through the initial draft to the formatted and proofread final draft. You may also be expected to add any charts or tables, apply a consistent design and ensure the document is in an appropriate file format (pdf, for example).
If you haven't paid much attention to the software you use for writing, it's probably a good idea to do so. MS Office has a number of features that are worth mastering; a few hours spent with your Word manual or online help will save you much more time over the long run. You will also increase your productivity and save yourself frustration. Some features worth mastering in Word are style sheets, tables, outlining, annotations, automatic numbering, page numbering, table of contents, and many others.
The same principle is true of other software commonly used by writers. Learn the time-saving features of your e-mail software (using Mailboxes and the Address Book, for example) and your web browser (organizing your favourites efficiently). Finally, learn how to take advantage of the many features of Adobe Acrobatnow the most popular file format for turning print documents into electronic documents.
8. Work Accurately with Numbers
Writing about statistics, survey results, research findings and other topics that require writers to write about numbers can be a problem if you are weak in basic arithmetic skills. Some of the most common errors writers make concern increases and decreases in percentage, ratios and fractions. A recent newspaper article commented on the "300% decline" in the share price of a stock. Do you see the error? Consider another example: If the number of employees in an office goes from 20 to 30, it's an increase of 50%. If the number of employees falls from 30 to 20, what is the percentage decrease? If you didn't say 33.3%, or if you don't see why a share price can't decline by 300%, you need to review the basic math of percentages.