When writers fail to think critically about their writing projects, documents can easily fall flat as tepid and unpersuasive, generating little to no impact on the reader.
Worse, ineffective writing might leave readers thinking that writers don't know what they’re talking about.
Remember, documents are the true deliverable. They speak with the organization’s voice, becoming the mechanism of its arguments and messaging. If they don’t have the intended impact on target readers, often nothing will – because those documents might be the only chance to make the argument. Potential customers and colleagues will decide what to make of the organization – and whether to do business with it – based solely on its writing. When authors fail to think critically about messaging, whether in the form of emails, marketing material, or reports, organizations undermine their ability to do their work and meet objectives.
Critical thinking is the foundation of effective written documents. It’s the skill that allows writers to transmute raw facts and information into powerful, compelling documents that hit their targets right in the bullseye.
However, that requires writers to construct documents that are coherent, readable, and designed to facilitate a desired outcome. At Hurley Write, we call this goal-driven writing: creating a strategy for the document that will maximize its ability to achieve a desired result. But writing that can help teams attain their goals requires planning.
Most business writers are, frankly, bad at planning.
That's because most business writers do not have a writing strategy. Or even if they do, they do not – or do not know how to – verify if the strategy is working.
Critical thinking helps here because it enables writers to create a logical process to follow. When writers think through crafting a goal-driven, impactful message, they’re using problem-solving. And that's good news, because most professionals are great problem-solvers because they apply their problem-solving strategies every day in their jobs.
In other words, writing and problem-solving are inextricably linked. When writers understand this, they can more easily create a writing strategy that works. At Hurley Write, we encourage writers to go through the steps of problem-solving to create a strategy to plan, write, and revise more effectively.
1: Define the problem
What’s the problem most writers are trying to solve? It’s pretty simple: it’s figuring out who our readers are, what they need, and the action we want them take using the tools we have to achieve a desired outcome.
2: Gather data
This step can involve various aspects, but probably the most important piece is figuring out who your readers are. This may seem simple, but too many writers give this short shrift. That is, instead of doing a deep dive, they’ll say, “My boss is my reader.” While that may be true, unless the writer takes the time to create a profile of that reader’s attributes, this information isn’t very helpful. Ask what you know about your readers; for instance, what do they expect? How will they read the document (are they skimmers or will they read the document in its entirety)? Are they biased or skeptical or do they agree with the information that’s being provided? Answers to questions like these may be obvious, or they may not, but it's critical to be able to answer them. In this, writing documents is like programming code: garbage in, garbage out. The better and more accurate the information, the better the document that will be created.
3: Generate potential solutions
Too often, writers get caught up in, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” without assessing whether the way it’s always been done is the most effective or efficient. Sometimes, information is presented in the same way, regardless of the reader, because no one has a) considered that reading habits change over time and b) assessed if their writing is working, which we discuss in our blog.
Maybe your organization uses a chronological approach to provide information, when the reader would prefer to have the bottom line upfront. Perhaps the organization is using the same type of long report when it would make more sense to break up the report into smaller, more digestible documents.
The point is to consider ways to present information that facilitate the desired impact on the reader. Start with the fundamentals: what type of document should be used (e.g., an executive summary, email, an in-depth report)? How should the information within the document be organized? Should the document be written for more than one reader? This is the time to brainstorm.
4: Test solutions
This is a step many writers skip, often because they never think to apply the problem-solving paradigm to a task they just want to get done. But think about writing the document as though you're engineering a new product: you'd naturally go through prototyping and beta-testing stages to ensure the product works as intended. Do the same with your writing: gather feedback from colleagues. What worked? What didn't? Why or why not?
5: Implement what works
Like engineers and problem-solvers, writers must always be assessing their writing to determine whether it’s working for their readers and achieving the desired outcome. And this is the crux of problem-solving and critical thinking in terms of writing: assessment is ongoing, in that good writers continually review and evaluates their writing, reader responses, and feedback.
Critical thinking catalyzes successful outcomes
Too many writers attack writing projects with no real strategy, with “just write” as their only plan. But too many writers also treat their writing projects as annoying hindrances to doing their “real work” rather than appreciating them as a core strategic element of doing business.
Thankfully, we have a good solution: employing a problem-solving process atop a foundation of careful, critical thinking significantly increases the chances of writing documents that are powerful, effective, and successful.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.