Critical thinking about a writing project is essential to a good end-product.
As we've written before, critical thinking transforms information into ideas and solutions. But to be successful in that endeavor, writers need to have a thorough and comprehensive understanding not just of the document itself but of the reader and of the context in which the document is going to be produced, distributed, consumed, shared, referenced, and more. That's a lot! But if we think of documents as goal-driven tools being used in service of a greater objective, writers need to be able to craft a tool that will be appropriate to the situation.
How do writers do that? They ask questions.
Asking questions is critical to critical thinking. Failure to ask questions means the author will end up producing a haphazard piece of writing that tries to be one-size-fits-all. In that case, it will probably be a poor fit for the situation at hand.
So, what are the critical questions writers need to ask themselves to spur critical thinking? Read on.
If writers dive into a writing project with only the most superficial idea of what they're trying to achieve, they will find it prohibitively difficult to generate desired outcomes. For example, a writer producing a business report might think the basic goal is "to inform" reader. But that's not really an outcome; instead, the writer should ask the following questions.
Ultimately, why am I writing the document?
What is its purpose?
What is the desired post-reading outcome?
What change do I want to catalyze, and/or what action do I want to drive?
Questions about the audience
The writer also needs to understand who will be reading the document. All too often, writers write to themselves or to colleagues rather than to the reader, creating a document that is a poor fit for the reader’s needs. Remember, readers have their own viewpoint, their own knowledge base, and their own reasons for reading. Further, there might be more readers than the writer realizes. Consider a proposal: the writer might target the document at a purchasing officer, but it's likely to be read by many different people at the organization, including C-level executives. To better understand the reader(s), ask the following questions.
Who is the intended reader for the document?
Who else might read the document?
What is the reader's interest in this document? What do I need to do to ensure the reader’s needs are met?
What are the reader's expectations of the document? What do I need to do to satisfy those expectations?
How will the reader use the information? How can I make the information useful to the reader?
What kind of information will move the reader to act?
What does the reader know versus what new information does the reader need?
What beliefs or biases will the reader bring to the document?
How will the reader consume the document (word for word, certain sections, skimming, etc.)?
Questions about the document itself
Technically, these questions still tie back to the reader, but at this point, we’re talking about the actual construction and production of the work. The writer wants to make sure the document is effective, and that means she needs to ensure that it is structured, organized, and designed to meet the reader's needs and prompt the desired action. At a minimum, the document has to contain all the information needed to make a decision or drive action. To figure out how to do that, ask the following questions.
What information and details should be included?
What information sources should I consult?
What points or message do I need to communicate?
How should that information be presented? That is, paragraph after paragraph of text may not be the ideal format; readers might also wish to see charts, tables, bulleted lists, infographics, callouts, and so forth.
How should the contents of the document be organized?
What kind of language is appropriate? What kind of language will the readers expect and understand?
Even all of these questions may not cover everything. Businesses deal in so many different kinds of written documents, for so many different reasons and aimed at so many different audiences, that almost every writing project will have specific questions that need to be answered. For more information, we take a more comprehensive look at critical questions and critical thinking in writing in many of our writing courses.
But this list should help writers get started thinking critically about their writing projects. With answers to these questions, writers will be armed with the information they need to be able to construct an effective and successful document that achieves desired outcomes.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) have 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.