As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading and editing a lot of project reports and documents lately. As I have, I’ve been keeping a running list of suggestions, errors and missteps to consider when embarking on a new writing assignment. Here are the latest additions. (Previous list is here.) I’ll add to the list as my editing marathon continues.
- Define in your mind who your audience is and what you want them to do as a result of reading what you’ve written. Consider making that definition a part of the document you’re writing to help readers better understand how they may benefit from or act upon what you’re written.
- Based on your intended audience, examine what you’ve written to determine whether an intended reader will know or understand every term of art or technical word/phrase.
- A declarative statement or editorial comment should be bolstered by proof points; without them, readers often judge such pronouncements as naive or obvious.
- When presenting lots of information, think about using a matrix to organize and summarize material for the convenience of readers.
- If you are discussing items in a series, present the same kinds of information for each item. Deviations from item to item will stop readers in their tracks as they try to divine whether an omission is an error, an attempt to manipulate a conclusion or something entirely different.
If you’re in the business of building formal or informal coalitions to get things done, you know that you are going to run into people who are working just as hard to undo your good work. As I’m currently working on a legislative initiative, I’m seeing that dynamic in action. Here are just a few of the many potential ways that opponents try to peel away supporters (be on guard):
- Allege that the proposed action is insensitive at best, unethical at worst, while attacking the motivation of the proponents. Few people want to be evil, and this will cause supporters to at least temporarily question their involvement. Response: Make sure coalition front organizations are recognized positive advocates for change and that communication facts and analysis as to who is affected and how are bulletproof.
- Claim that the effort, while perhaps not unethical, is certainly illegal or unconstitutional, especially for obscure or highly technical reasons. Leave a whiff of litigation threat in the air. People are so skittish about getting sucked into the American legal system that some will start to flee. Response: Come prepared with legal precedents and analysis that the proposed change has/can withstand legal challenge.
- Suggest that the proposed initiative is unneeded because existing entities or organizations can make the changes under their current framework or rules/statutes. Standing pat is a comforting position for many folks and will sap their drive, ignoring the fact that change wouldn’t be in the air if those groups had done something already. Response: Prepare timeline of worsening conditions and/or failed opportunities to previously address needed change.
- Agree that change is needed and then propose a complex administrative or funding scheme for making the change happen. The more intricate the problem-solving approach – often offered under the guise of “if we’re going to fix it, let’s get it right the first time” – almost always guarantees failure. It ensures that the effort will likely collapse under its own weight and inertia. Or it creates a situation in which there are so many things, each hated by one person or group, that the coalition driving for change falls apart. Response: Stay focused on solving only the precipitating need and, to use the cliché, harvesting the low-hanging fruit first. Further change can be pursued when successes have been established and everyone wants to be on the winning side.
I’ve been reading and editing a lot of project reports and documents lately, and as I have, I’ve been keeping a running list of common errors and missteps shared by many writers. Here are ten in random order; I’ll add to the list as my editing marathon continues.
- Use the real state abbreviation when writing. Postal codes – MO for Missouri – are only used in address blocks.
- Capitalize only first word and proper nouns in headlines. Don’t cap every word or, god forbid, every letter; there’s plenty of research to show that landscape capitalization is far easier to read.
- Use “more than” or “less than” when talking about numbers or quantities, not over or under. More describes a numerical relationship; over a spatial relationship.
- Scan the document – every occurrence of “to … ” signals an opportunity for using a more active voice. “The project will prompt economic growth”; not “the project is designed to prompt economic growth.”
- Lead virtually any organizational email, letter or document with a call to action, then build the case and context for taking the action, not the other way around. Doing so helps orient the reader and makes for more succinct, tighter writing.
- Explain why you are introducing new information and why it matters.
- Link images with body text. Caption all images.
- If presenting a series of items, make clear whether it is a rank order list, alpha list or organized by some other principle, or if it’s a random list.
- Avoid acronyms.
- Construct bullets or lists throughout the document in a parallel fashion. Don’t start one bullet with a verb and the next one with a noun. Pick one style and stick with it, as is the case with this list.
When consensus building, last-minute opportunities pop up to talk with specific interest groups and attempt to elicit their support. Often these groups have such specific interests that a standard “stump speech” just doesn’t cut it in terms of content and focus.
The time and effort involved in producing a tailored presentation for these groups can be reduced, however, by thinking about the mental map of those you are trying to reach. That is, what questions will they have in mind as they decide whether to attend your presentation, pay attention and give you a fair hearing?
When faced with this kind of last-minute, one-off presentation situation, I think about how I will answer these questions that I believe most potential audience members have as they decide whether and when to pay attention:
- What’s the problem or opportunity generally speaking?
- Why should I care?
- Who are you that I should pay attention?
- What are the specifics of the issue/opportunity?
- Why is it a problem now?
- How much does it affect me?
- When will it affect me?
- What are the solutions?
- Why won’t the status quo handle the issue?
- What are the “easy” answers and why won’t they work?
- What/who will fix the problem and what are the pros and cons of each solution?
- What do I need to do?
- What are the specific things you want me to do, when and in what sequence?
- What resources are available to help me do this?
- How will I know when I’ve succeeded?
- Again, why do I need to do this as opposed to someone else?
- How will the world be different if I pay attention to you and do what you’ve asked.
In the midst of myriad emails in which I was explaining the minutiae of passing legislation (and how support or opposition is built and expressed), a colleague complained: “I don’t remember it being that complicated when the School House Rock video explained it.” We can only wish.