Writing techniques

How do you get started? Faced with that pristine new document, all that whitespace, what do you generally do to start writing that document?

Like most companies, we have a number of people who create content in a number of different styles and formats. The main producers are, of course, the technical writing team, but after that there is still a fair number of documents which fall into the “creative writing” bag including whitepapers, proposals, product sheets and so on.

The people involved in writing these documents are, for the most part, promoted internally and have had no formal training in how to write. I was chatting with one of them recently and he said that the biggest issue he had was just getting started, and once started he couldn’t really tell if what he was writing was particularly well structured.

“Hey” he said, “could you train us to be writers?”

One day I’ll learn not to say YES to such questions, but it seemed a reasonable request at the time.

The thing is, I’ve never been trained as a writer either, and writing technical documentation follows patterns which other types of document don’t necessarily follow. On the other hand, any pattern is better than no pattern and if I could introduce some basic methodologies, surely it’s better for everyone?

Luckily for me I had still had fresh memories of attending a particular session at the Technical Communication conference. Kim Schrantz-Berquist presented If you can write an article, you can write anything! in which she covered a couple of writing techniques which I think will be perfect to introduce to the ‘creative writers’ in our company.

The first one I’ve adapted quite a bit to better fit with the intended audience, but the principles of the 5Ws and 1H remain the same. If you cover Who, What, Why, When, Where and How you won’t missing anything, and it’s a good way to kick start the brain, and get past that first blank page.

Kim also covered the Inverted Pyramid, something more typically used in journalism, that loads all the important information at the top of the article, ideal for business writing as it allows people to ‘get out’ of the document without missing out on crucial information.

I’ve taken the techniques she covered, crafted some examples specific to our organisation, and a little bit about Active vs Passive, a few slides on grammar that build on advice from Prof. Pullum (basically, don’t sweat it and write as you would speak) and will hopefully deliver the first workshop next week.

But before I do that, I’d love to hear if you have any other techniques that could help.

3 comments

  1. Gordon:
    At one of my previous jobs, I did one of these informal writing courses. I think my addition would be to tell them that there are two approaches to getting started. Some writers (the more organized type) start by creating an outline that covers all the important information, then fills it in to write the article or whatever. Others (the less organized ones) start by making notes on everything they know about the topic, then start writing. These wait until they have a first draft, then do a quick outline to see if it fits together and that they got in all the important points. At this point, both can revise appropriately. Some folks prefer to work deductively, while others trust their intuition and jump in feet first. Both methods work (but not for the same people.) JMHO

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