write first time?
If you have ever gone hot and cold in response to reading something you should never have sent, then you’ll appreciate the importance of careful editing. Silly errors are only too easy - and too many may even put your professional reputation on the line.
One way to guard against this is to put some techniques in place to ensure that your writing makes the impact you choose. To help you avoid any nasty blemishes on all your hard work, here are a few tips to keep somebody else’s red pen at bay.
preparation and protocols
Let’s start with some of the pre-emptive research you need to do before you invest your energies in a piece of writing. Clearly, none of us want to have our written words ripped apart along with our feelings.
What is needed? Clearly, its not a great idea to base your writing on optimistic guesswork or on someone else’s hastily described needs. Sometimes they may not know what they really want from you – they only realise what they don’t want after you have invested blood, sweat and tears on something else.
So, in the absence of clear guidelines, clarify things for yourself before you waste your time and undermine your confidence or reputation. What do they mean when they ask you to produce a written ‘report’? We can offer plenty of advice about how to make writing reports more painless, with he caveat that our experience says there is no one right way, whatever your industry.
Making assumptions is risky. While, generally speaking, it may well be true that reports, for example, follow predictable structures or emails should be short and sweet - check! What is expected will depend on the culture of the organisation or team you work with, the function of the writing in question, as well as what it is that you need to say and to who in particular.
get the branding right
If there is an in-house style, whoever has the last word also needs to feel that branding has been properly taken care of. Find out. Ask for examples. This may be as basic as checking out font style and size or the details of the colour palette available to you - or indeed what the accepted views are on using parentheses (brackets) or too many exclamation marks!!!!
It also includes researching the more sophisticated stuff, such as the tone that best represents your company or organization. All of which may entail adjusting your natural style.
Should you display your knowledge of industry jargon, use insider phrases or keep it simple? Should you sign off Yours Faithfully or Best Wishes? Do you need to have lengthier documents in uber-formal speak or can you be more playful? Can you embed graphics into longer reports or should they have a more traditional and academic feel?
Do your prep. Your incentive for being thorough at this stage is to avoid a hefty editing job when you thought you had finished. Check out those important protocols get a clear brief and think about their perspective - whoever they may be. And where you need to, have those difficult conversations to ask for further clarification so that you can meet the ultimate needs of your reader or readers.
know the answers
An easy way to start to prepare is to find the answers to four key questions before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: What? Who? Why? and How? Each depends on the others. For example, what we write and in what detail depends on who we hope to communicate with and why.
The good news is that when you have the answers to the first three, your ideas are most likely to flow and to help you to answer the fourth big question - How? How can you ensure that your writing is clear, understandable and credible?
On the credibility issue, we do judge books by their covers. Information is read within a context and according to the chosen medium it reaches us.
As readers, our first response to any piece of writing is usually based on appearance, so at some point you must consider what your page or document looks like. Does it seem worthy of reading? Does it look visually interesting? If it is hard copy, how do you rate the quality of the paper, the level of glossiness and the overall standards of presentation?
You will want the quality of your ideas and professionalism to be reflected in your writing as much as they are in your face-to-face communications. Not least because most people will not read anything that looks unappetising or appears unworthy of serious attention. How well you present your words could actually matter as much as the accuracy of your content.
Although reviewing general lay out and presentation usually happens in your final draft, the visual quality of your writing is worth bearing in mind from the start.
This means even if the writing in question is a basic email. All your messages need to fulfil their function as well as support your professional integrity.
As well as the overall impression created by presentation quality and tone, the ‘feel’ of a piece of writing is also derived from the status and accuracy of its content.
Clearly, not knowing your facts or too many inaccuracies can seriously dent your image. In the first place, reference your content where necessary and check those spellings.
Spelling howlers can easily slip through the spellcheck net. Quite and quiet and piece and peace and there and their and they’re … and on and on. Although there may be nothing at all wrong with the spellings, your intended meaning can be distorted.
You may find it useful to read backwards, as well as forwards, as a means of checking your spellings. While some writers may swear by this method, for lesser mortals there’s also good old spellcheck. Great, except when you are being corrected according to Americanized (Americanised) English. And if you are across the Atlantic, versa vice …or visa versa.
The purist debate about grammatical accuracy can feel equally stifling, although it doesn’t necessarily need to. Despite the popularity of books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves; which if you haven’t read is a brilliant tirade against the evils of poor punctuation; such venom can make you feel nervous about making grammatical errors.
Undoubtedly, there will have been a couple throughout this piece. Yet there is still solace in appreciating that the rules of grammar are stretchy. Language evolves, traditional rules are flaunted and colloquialisms become part and parcel (…) of how we communicate with each other, even in writing.
Of course, this is not to make the case for poor grammar or adopting informality where it may be inappropriate - just to say that as long as you display respect for your subject and readers and are as careful as you can be, you may not need to get too hung up on the issue. If there are grammar police lurking, seek their help, otherwise switch on your laptop’s grammar function if you feel uncertain.
stay focused on the bigger picture
This brings us neatly onto The Big P issue. Purpose! Your biggest editing challenge is to ensure that your words remain fit and appropriate for purpose. This means revisiting the big four questions: Who? What? Why? and How?
Avoid producing writing that just goes through the motions. Avoid being too quick to press ‘send’ so that you can tick the job off your ‘to do’ list. Avoid believing that presenting the bald facts alone is enough to get your reader on side.
Instead, expect to tweak and amend your writing and be deliberate about looking for ways to add finesse to your final draft. Your thoughts in writing are tangible evidence that can be used for or against you in the future so it makes total sense to resist rushing things through and to find time for two or three careful edits.
If your vocabulary feels stale or repetitive don’t overlook the Synonym and Thesaurus functions either.
Repetition can be very effective when used for deliberate effect - on the other hand, the endless use of certain words or phrases is lazy and makes for dull and predictable reading.
Speaking of which, if you’re feeling radical, a good old-fashioned dictionary is a helpful desk prop, as well as a trillion online versions and those provided by Word or Pages - always handy for the final edit.
checking once, twice, thrice
Check, check, check. When you have invested minutes, hours, days, weeks on a piece of writing it’s really difficult to see it, to read it as a pair of fresh eyes might. There is no substitute for having an effective checking regime.
It’s important to clarify what you are you checking for. We have already mentioned the obvious stuff – content accuracy, what it looks like, spellings and grammar – there’s also sense, meaning, clarity, structure and flow to consider.
Your writing may satisfy all of the above, but does it work? Is it interesting? Informative? Engaging? Will it make a difference to the person who is reading it? Will they read to the end? Will it be shared with someone else, turned into a paper aeroplane or will it create fireworks?
print out your writing
You may be loath to print out your words just for the sake of error spotting. From an environmental point of view it may feel downright wasteful in terms of ink and paper. My advice is to do it anyway.
There is more serious wastage at stake, which includes your time and talents if your writing lets you down. And if that suggestion hurts, use the ‘draft’ option when you print, you can then save ink as well as face.
read them aloud
While many of us suffer from a kind of word blindness when we see our words on the page or screen, reading them aloud can help you spot repetition or omissions.
Although it may sound daft, especially if you are self-conscious or work in an open plan office, it often does the trick. Poor punctuation, unconscious repetition or total nonsense becomes far more obvious when you actually hear what you have written.
Working in a busy BBC newsroom, we could often be seen chuntering around the place talking to ourselves as a means of self-checking. Of course, this was about checking timings too, but the point is that you notice far more by reading your words out loud.
take a break
Leave your work and come back to it. Even when you think it’s finished - wait! If it is a really important piece of writing find the time if you can to take a break, do something else or put the kettle on.
Returning refreshed to give it one more read often pays off - almost certainly you will find further ways to sharpen your original thoughts.
ask for feedback
Don’t suffer in silence if you are struggling. Try to find a writing buddy, someone you trust who can spare a few minutes to check things over with. Especially if you are worried about your writing or hung up about grammar, there is no substitute for this kind of support where it is offered sensitively.
Whether you are asking for editing support or offering it, do spare a thought for the emotional side of the experience. Great swathes of scribbles, crossings out and question marks may feel necessary and well intended but dignity and morale are also at stake. Drill down to specifics about how things could be improved as well as what worked.
Aside from being able to spot superficial spelling or grammatical errors, any further advice needs to be weighed against personal style and overall aims. In the face of any subjective criticism, those best equipped to justify their choices are those who are well prepared and focused.
get the write support (...)
However you decide to sharpen up your professional writing, whether you use a highlighter pen or find a writing mentor or buddy, you need to find a system that works for you - and one that is thorough. It’s worth it! Accurate, clear and effective professional writing requires careful prep and diligent editing. It also results in happier endings.