Posted Jan. 3, 2018
In the scientific, business, and technical writing courses we teach, we begin with a critical thinking exercise that asks participants to make decisions based on a limited set of parameters.
That practice helps participants begin to understand that writing is problem-solving. That is, every writing task is a puzzle that the writer must piece together. Many would-be writers get stuck at this point, however, because they don’t think about writing in this way and, consequently, don’t know how to piece their writing puzzle together.
Happily, the answer is simple: the process works just like engineering any product or building any machine. You need only follow a familiar product development process.
IdeationYou wouldn’t immediately dive into building a new product just because you had the kernel of an idea. Instead, you take that idea and think about it, play with it, iterate it. Whether you do this all in your head, through sketches and notes, or in discussion with colleagues, it’s the same with a writing project: you must spend some time up front just researching and exploring the core idea.
Blueprinting (AKA Prewriting)Once the idea is formed well enough to take real-world action…you still don’t dive into building it. Instead, you begin the process of architecting. This step can take a variety of forms in product development; for writing projects, this would be prewriting, which many writers often skip in their rush to get the task out of the way. Yet creating a framework upon which to build the draft will speed up every subsequent development stage.
Prototyping (AKA the First Draft)Here we come at last to the act of writing itself, but we’re still far from a complete written piece. The first draft is always rough. Too many writers think of the first draft as the final product and that, therefore, the first draft has to be perfect, but even long-time professional writers treat the first draft like a prototype. It’s something preliminary that has the rough shape of the final product but also has a lot of testing and quality checking in its future. The prototype helps us verify that we’re on track; it doesn’t need to get us to the destination.
Beta Testing (AKA Gathering Feedback)For a writing project, a best practice is to enlist the help of some colleagues (preferably those who are unfamiliar with your topic) to provide feedback; or you might undertake this stage yourself, systematically combing through the document with a critical eye to articulate what’s not working. In other words, we stress-test the prototype for faults and shortcomings (“bugs”). This means more than just correcting grammar: it’s a thorough Quality Assurance check that identifies all issues: “Weak introduction, the next section is too wordy, will the reader understand the last section, forgot to mention XYZ….”
Troubleshooting and Bug Fixing (AKA Revisions)Now that we’ve identified some “bugs” in the writing, we can go through the revision process. This is another stage that many writers skip or minimize to save time. Business consultant Josh Bernoff’s 2016 The State of Business Writing report found that businesspeople tend to spend only 19% of their writing time on revisions, which is very low. In some ways, the real writing doesn’t even happen until the editing stage. You might cycle through multiple iterations of Beta Testing, Troubleshooting, and Bug Fixing until the product is performing to expectations. Trust us: even pro writers sometimes take dozens of revisions to get an important piece just right.
So, the next time you have a difficult writing project dogging you, try approaching it like you’re engineering a product. The same process is perfect for crafting compelling content.
About Hurley Write, Inc.