I claim that workplace writing is 90% about content and 10% about presentation, in the same way a cargo ship is 90% about the cargo and only 10% about the ship. Of course, if the ship itself (the 10%) sinks, the 90%—that valuable content—is lost. Our conversations, by the way, are also 90% about content.
You should totally be checking your documents for adequate content before you worry too much about the particulars of presentation. So, what criteria/standard should you use to evaluate the adequacy of content in any workplace document?
The Reader-Question Metric (RQM) is an incisive criterion for judging a document’s content, and it’s very simple to explain:
· RQM says: any workplace document, print or electronic, must completely address all pertinent reader-questions about the issue in question.
Start checking every workplace document to see if it addresses all reader-questions concerning the issue in question. If it fails to answer some questions, the content is not complete. If it answers questions that aren’t pertinent for the reader, it’s excessive.
USE QUESTION FACTORING TO DISCOVER THE CONTENT
Question Factoring (QF) is a technique that allows you to discover whether a document meets the standard expressed by RQM—does the document address all pertinent reader-questions? I created QF after watching the quiz show Jeopardy. Contestants are given an answer. Their task is to state the question. I realized this procedure was perfect for analyzing content in any workplace document because every sentence (and every paragraph and section) is really an answer. If I can state the question it’s addressing, I can list reader-questions a document addresses to see if it fulfills the criterion stated by the Reader-Question Metric.
QF can be done sentence by sentence, or paragraph by paragraph, or even section by section. Every sentence, paragraph, or section should convey one major point. That major point is an ANSWER. But what specific question is the answer addressing? Discovering the questions behind the answers is the essence of QF.
I usually begin with sections, then paragraphs, and finally sentences. If a section fails to address a key question, I fix it so it does, which means adjusting paragraphs and sentences.
Look back at the three previous paragraphs. Notice that they address the following questions:
1. What is QF and how did you discover it?
2. How is QF done?
3. What’s the best place to begin?
If I’m satisfied that these three questions and their answers are important to you, my reader, and if I have answered the questions completely enough for you, I know the content is adequate.
Since you are my reader, you could respond to that content in several ways:
· You addressed all my relevant questions completely;
· You addressed all my relevant questions but gave not enough or too much information in one or more of the answers;
· You addressed some of my relevant questions, but left some out;
· You didn’t address any of my relevant questions.
Some years after coming up with the RQM criterion and the QF technique, I discovered they are similar to a concept discussed by ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians, like Aristotle, Hermagoras, and Quintillian.
They called their concept “stasis.” It’s also an easy concept to describe.
Imagine a venn diagram, two circles side by side that overlap to some degree.
The circle on the left, Circle A, stands for all the information a writer provides in a given document. The circle on the right, Circle B, stands for all the information a reader needs. We define the shaded area in the venn diagram, where the two circles intersect, as successful writing. The writer gave information that the reader needed.
Stasis happens when Circle A and Circle B overlap completely. Stasis describes a totally successful document—all the information provided is all the information the reader needs.
Stasis is the same as the Reader-Question Metric—does the document completely answer all pertinent reader-questions about the issue in question?
You can use Question Factoring to work from answers back to questions to determine the degree to which stasis (RQM) is achieved.
When you read a workplace document of any kind, see if it achieves full stasis (RQM). Check sections, paragraphs, and sentences to see what question they address. Are all the pertinent reader-questions addressed? Does it address the right question at the right time? If so, the document has adequate content. If not, adjustments should be made.
This technique allows you to stay ABOVE “THE WRITING” and judge the adequacy of content (90% of the value) without getting bogged down in presentation (10% of the value). If content is not adequate, presentation doesn’t matter at all (to the real reader).
P.S. Too bad we spend so much time in school on presentation and so little time on generating useful content.
Do you agree?