Does your writing lack purpose? Has it failed to achieve what you set out to do? Have you written something that’s difficult to read? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of them, ask yourself this question: Did I answer three important questions before I began writing?
The answers will help your clarify your thinking before you start writing. Your aim is to give your readers a context and a structure to guide them to the conclusion you want them to reach.
Answering these questions forms part of the planning process that is so vital to successful writing.
Did you know that established writers report spending at least 50% of their time planning?
So, the three questions…
1.What is the purpose of this document?
Why are you writing this document?
Your purpose might be to explain, recommend, persuade, motivate, request, report findings. Would your writing be the same for each purpose?
Understanding your purpose will determine your choices about the type, structure and format of your document, and language style.
My purpose for this article is to teach business writers what they need to understand before starting to write. Therefore, I’m:
writing an article (type)
taking readers step-by-step through a process (structure)
using headings, coloured text, indents (format)
using an encouraging, relaxed tone (language).
Will a letter or a brochure work better when wanting to persuade your readers to buy your product or service?
What adaptations will you need to make if you’re preparing multiple types of documents for a particular project?
Should you begin with the findings / recommendations / call to action, followed by explanations and reasonings?
Or present your argument first, with the findings / recommendations / call to action concluding the document?
What’s the best way to present a compare/contrast argument?
How can you present your document to make it as easy to read as possible?
Will you use headings, indents, lists, illustrations, coloured text, etc?
Formal or relaxed, conversational style?
Descriptive language? (Yes, for persuasive and motivational writing) Or factual and unemotional?
2.Who is my audience?
Who is going to read your document?
In our marketing strategies, we know who our ideal client is, and have developed a mental image to focus our thinking.
The same applies when we write – picture your reader actually reading this document. Think about their needs and what will appeal to them.
I picture my readers as professional, savvy, funky, entrepreneurial women who want to do business their way.
Before we go further, these questions may help you clarify your thinking.
- Apart from your primary reader, will there be secondary readers? These could be the primary reader’s financial manager or supervisor: how will you balance both needs?
- How will this document be read? Scanned? Read in detail? Or only the parts of interest?
- How will it be used? Will it be read frequently (a manual)? Will it be used to make a decision?
Should you use headings? (Scanners appreciate headings.)
Will a table of contents be useful for those who will read only the parts that interest them?
Will columns or lists make it more readable?
Will you be able to use industry-specific terms?
How will you explain such terms if your readers are not familiar with them? Consider footnotes, glossary, index for a more formal document, or a simple explanation in brackets for informal writing.
Will a table, illustration or graph be more readable?
It’s really hard to take off your writing hat and step into your reader’s shoes. But learn to do it so that you can always look at your document from your reader’s point of view.
3.What is my message?
We’ve all developed our elevator pitch or tag line: the same applies to writing.
Knowing exactly what your message is for each document will give you a clear direction, and help you cut out the waffle.
My message in this document is ‘Answer three questions before writing.’
- What exactly do you want your readers to know, understand or do? What is your core message? What is your call to action?
- How can I say this succinctly and clearly?
Remember to answer these three questions before you start writing – your readers will appreciate it.
How do you judge the success of a document that someone else has written?
How do you judge the success of a document you’ve written?