Fiction writers are often encouraged to write with reckless abandon—just write, write, write . . . drink a lot of coffee . . . and then write some more. I’m sure many fantastic novels, poems, and screenplays have emerged from this overly caffeinated do-it-now technique. But as business writers, we are more successful when we take the time to prepare before doing any actual writing. Here are seven tips to help you prepare for your next business writing project. (Of course, you can still drink a lot of coffee if you want to. I plan to!)
1. Elect a project manager.
If you’re working in a formal business environment, you probably already have a project manager, so this tip doesn’t apply to you. However, if you’re working in a casual team, nominate one person to oversee the project because leaderless projects can easily spiral out of control, even when everyone involved has the best of intentions. At the very least, someone should monitor the schedule and keep track of individual writing assignments to avoid redundancies and oversights.
2. Establish a word-count or page-count goal.
Your document’s length will affect writing, editing, approval, formatting, and publication deadlines, so establish a word-count or page-count goal before creating a schedule.
If you choose to use a page-count goal, also create a words-per-page baseline so that all of the writers involved count pages in the same way. The publishing-industry standard is 250 words per page,1 but if you’re writing step-by-step instructions or other how-to material, you may want to reduce that number to avoid overwhelming your audience. For example, you might aim for three steps per page with each step requiring no more than thirty words.
Most importantly, remember that this is a goal rather than a mandate. The document’s length may need to be adjusted at various stages to better serve your audience. Of course, budgets and deadlines can also influence length goals.
Further Reading: How to Use Microsoft Word’s Word Count Tool
3. Create a multi-phase schedule.
Rather than just setting a project deadline, create a schedule outlining as many phases as possible so you can identify delays or conflicts as they occur. Here are a few dates you may want to include in your schedule:
- Brainstorming sessions
- Draft start dates and deadlines
- Review sessions
- Copyediting start dates and deadlines
- Proofreading start dates and deadlines
- Formatting start dates and deadlines
- Approval start dates and deadlines (i.e., approval from your manager, headquarters, the Big Cheese, etc.)
- Publication start dates and deadlines
4. Identify your audience’s needs.
Are you writing for your coworkers, existing customers, potential customers, or the general public? Identifying your audience helps you tailor your document to meet specific needs.
However, identifying audience needs can be tricky—particularly if you have a large audience. To simplify the process, consider creating a few fictitious readers that represent your target audience. Some people write elaborate biographies describing their fictitious readers, but even one-paragraph summaries can be effective.
Regardless of the length of your descriptions, identify each fictitious reader’s (1) goal or problem, (2) experience with your product or service, and (3) expectation of your product or service. You may also want to include personal factors such as (1) educational background (2) income (3) career level, (5) family situation, and (4) cultural influences.
Don’t worry about creating fictitious readers that embody every person who may read your document; instead, focus on creating identities that represent, as closely as possible, your audience as a whole. You can then think back to these fictitious readers as you make writing, image, and formatting choices.
5. Consider conducting a usability analysis.
Usability analyses help you identify usage problems in your documentation. Usability analyses are most common for how-to documents such as manuals and instructions; however, they are worth considering when creating any type of action-oriented content. For example, you may want to conduct a usability analysis to ensure that your website’s navigation placement and text help visitors find information quickly and easily.
There are many ways to conduct a usability analysis, some of which are quite complex.2 The easiest method is to simply watch a few people test your document. Ideally, your testers should represent your target audience and should not have read the document before. When conducting this type of analysis, the most important thing to remember is to silently observe the testers’ behavior after giving them a straightforward task (i.e., “Please assemble the widget using the one-page instruction sheet.”). If you offer advice, encouragement, or criticism, the testers will react to your feedback and their behavior will no longer represent your audience’s behavior.
6. Choose your writing style guide.
Does your business have an in-house writing style guide? If so, cheers! You’re ahead of the game. If not, select a style manual, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, The Associated Press Stylebook, or the MLA Handbook. Style manuals help you maintain consistent style and grammar choices (e.g., hyphenation, number formatting, heading capitalization) throughout all of your documentation.
All style manuals have a unique slant, so you may need to do a little research to determine which one is most suitable for your industry. If you can’t decide, I highly recommend The Chicago Manual of Style because it is the most comprehensive and almost all of its advice can be applied to general business writing.
Further Reading: What Is a Style Guide?
7. Obtain legal permission to use outside content.
Obtaining legal permission to reproduce portions of someone else’s writing can take longer than expected. And, sometimes permission is unexpectedly denied. So, if you want to include outside content in your document, hire a lawyer or permissions editor to help you obtain legal permission from the copyright holder long before you start writing so that you will have time to make other arrangements if your original plans fall through.
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, we’re ready to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, most likely) with my upcoming post: seven tips for effective business writing.
2. Visit Jakob Nielsen’s site https://www.nngroup.com/ if you would like to learn more about usability. Although Nielsen focuses on web interfaces, much of his advice can easily be applied to text.