To do Powerful Writing (or Powerful Editing/Reviewing) you should have a systematic approach for developing a document draft and making it truly powerful. This post gives you guidelines for Powerful Writing, for developing any workplace document, from a simple email to a complex report….
“Powerful Writing” means CONTENT that keeps your reader’s level of interest high, and ORGANIZATION, DOCUMENT DESIGN and STYLE that keep your reader’s level of effort low. The more useful and readable your writing is, the more power it will have.
MOST OF US THINK OF “WRITING” IN JUST TWO WAYS
First, we think of “writing” as what hits us in the face when we view the document for the first time.
We notice the most VISIBLE aspects of the document like
- title and headlines,
- pictures and graphics,
- font (at least unconsciously), and
- general layout (how long the lines are, whether they’re in one column or multiple columns, whether there are any sections with headings).
So first we notice how the document actually looks on the page/screen when we first view it. This first-impression glimpse is enough to turn us off—make us hit delete—or invite us in—make us delve into the actual words.
Second, we think of “writing” as all the sentences, one after another after another.
We notice the EMBEDDED aspects of the document like
- Are sentences clear?
- Are they correct?
- Are they delivering useful information in a more or less pleasing way?
- Does the information flow smoothly so it’s easy to follow?
The VISIBLE and EMBEDDED aspects of any document are certainly important to consider. But we need tools that help us drill down more productively into ALL the aspects of the “writing.” So here are 7 steps to help create POWERFUL WRITING...writing that keeps your reader’s level of interest high and the level of effort low.
STEP 1: CONTENT
Understand that, from the reader’s point of view, writing is 90% about the content and 10% about the presentation. A reader will actually read what you write in direct proportion to the useful information your writing provides.
A very smart way to think of CONTENT is to realize that, if your reader is interested in the ISSUE (topic) you’re writing about, that reader has a number of questions about the ISSUE in question. Developing truly useful CONTENT is the ability to know all the questions about the ISSUE that your reader needs you to answer and then to answer them.
POWERFUL CONTENT = READER-QUESTIONS ANSWERED!
STEP 2: ORGANIZATION
Your reader approaches anything you write with 3 really big questions:
1. What is this writing about AND why should I care?
2. What’s the “story”?
3. What, if anything, is next?
To meet your reader’s needs, you should organize any document around these 3 big questions. In fact, almost all documents have 3 parts. I’ll name them
These 3 parts connect perfectly to the reader’s 3 big questions. So….
1. Your introduction should tell the reader why you’re writing and why the reader should care. It should also PREVIEW the main points you will be making (each of the major sections of your document is the answer to one of the major questions your reader has about the ISSUE in question.)
2. Your discussion should answer all the reader’s questions about the ISSUE you’re writing about. By ISSUE, I simply mean the area of shared interest between you and your reader—it’s the reason you’re writing and the reason your reader will be interested in reading.
3. Your ending should tell the reader what, if anything, should happen next: you will do something to follow-up; the reader must do something to respond; or nothing will happen.
This 3-part structure helps you move the reader logically through your content.
The other aspect of organization is determining where the main point is situated in each section. Readers are busy. They prefer the main point to come first. After they see the main point, they expect a discussion/explanation of that main point.
This style of organization is called MESSAGE-FIRST structure. It takes a lot of practice. Many writers find that an outline, especially a detailed sentence outline, helps them build a strong MESSAGE-FIRST structure that is most helpful to their reader.
STEP 3: DOCUMENT DESIGN
How you place the words on the screen/page greatly affects readability. Look at your document with a reader’s-eye. Be very sensitive to
- font style,
- line length,
- length of sections, headings, and graphics.
Be sure to look at your document to see that the layout choices you’ve made make the writing as accessible and attractive as possible.
Keep in mind that readers love headings. Headings break up a longer email or report. Consider using full-sentence headings that state the main point of a section—like a newspaper headline.
Readers love pictures. Tell your “story” with as many visual aids as you can. Most readers are very much visually oriented and would rather see an informative graphic or infographic than read long paragraphs of information. Look for opportunities to provide information visually.
Use colors carefully. Your main goal should not be decoration; it should be readability.
STEP 4: PARAGRAPHS
Put the main point first in your paragraphs as often as you can. Doing this will make them easier to digest and will help you better determine what information is extraneous and should be cut. Less is usually more these days.
Avoid long paragraphs. Any paragraph over about 8 lines long will start to be a daunting task for your reader. Also, long paragraphs embed too much information in their middles. That information in the middle is greatly de-emphasized.
Improve the logical flow throughout a paragraph by looking out for sentences that begin with totally new information. If the actual grammatical subject of a sentence presents information that has not been mentioned, it may violate what is called the known/new contract (see a short video on this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HsoMhJN-DM).
Also, check how your sentences “branch.” Sentences can branch to the right, to the left, or in the middle, or any combination of these. For instance, the following shows the same sentence written as a right-branching sentence, as a left-branching sentence, and as a mid-branching sentence.
- RIGHT-BRANCHING SENTENCE---the main clause comes first and additional information (in ALL CAPS) follows (to the right): The sky remained blue, ALTHOUGH RAIN WAS PREDICTED.
- LEFT-BRANCHING SENTENCE—the main clause comes after the additional information (in ALL CAPS), which comes to the left: ALTHOUGH RAIN WAS PREDICTED, the sky remained blue.
- MID-BRANCHING-SENTENCE—the main clause is interrupted by the additional information (ALL IN CAPS): The sky, ALTHOUGH RAIN WAS PREDICTED, remained blue.
Research shows that a right-branching sentence is easiest for a reader to understand. The mid-branching sentence is the most difficult to understand. The left-branching sentence is in the middle.
Left-branching sentences can be useful for providing background or contextual information before the main point.
STEP 5: SENTENCES
There’s so much to say about crafting great sentences that are both clear and correct. Most of what you learned in school about “writing” probably focused mainly on sentence-making.
Watch out for sentences that go much beyond 30 words. You can craft longer sentences that are easy to read, but beyond about 30 words too many concepts build up in the sentence and the reader has a tougher time following the information. Having two shorter sentences is usually better than one pretty long one.
Watch out for NOMINALIZATIONS. These are nouns that could have been verbs. The following sentence has NOMINALIZATIONS:
- Our preference is that our examination of the policy precede our final determination of the final departmental procedures.
I’m sure you sense the wordiness of this sentence. Now you can pinpoint its source: the nominalizations.
When you discover a noun that could be a verb, try to convert the nominalization into a verb and rewrite the sentence using the verbs instead of the nouns. Here’s how you might rewrite the sentence with three nominalizations:
- We prefer to examine the policy before we determine the final departmental procedures.
The verb-based sentence is 5 words shorter than the nominalization-based sentence. But, more importantly, it’s clearer. Paying close attention to nominalizations and converting them to verbs when possible will make your writing far more reader-friendly.
STEP 6: WORD CHOICES
We advocate PLAIN ENGLISH (PE). PE does NOT mean dumbing-down a sentence or taking the important nuances out of an idea for the sake of simplicity. PE means using the words you’d naturally use if you were talking to someone about the ISSUE in question…the words you use every day to talk to your co-workers and customers.
We all have this almost unstoppable tendency to ratchet-up our vocabulary when we write (I call it WORD INFLATION). For instance, we might write this:
- The collection and sharing of the types of personal information our company accrues are dependent on the product or service the customer maintains within our organization.
instead of this:
- The types of personal information we collect and share depend on the product or service you have with us.
When I advise that you write conversationally (in PE), I’m simply telling you to raise your awareness about the WORD INFLATION that attacks so much of our writing. It’s NOT your vocabulary or long sentences that will impress the reader. What makes your writing POWERFUL are the clarity and completeness of your answers to your reader's important questions about the ISSUE in question.
STEP 7: MECHANICS
Ensure correctness by proofreading. I know you’re in a crazy hurry all the time. But it’s worth it to take a moment and carefully proofread before you hit SEND, before you make your document public.
There are 10,000 grammar and punctuation rules we all should know…but don’t. Look up any grammar/punctuation questions you might have. Think how smart you’ll become.
ALL OF THE ABOVE DEFINES A PROCESS I CALL STRUCTURED REVIEW
Be sure to review your documents in a structured way. Check first for CONTENT. If you have CONTENT problems, fix them before continuing your review.
Once CONTENT is okay, check ORGANIZATION. If you have problems with any aspect of organization, fix them before you move on.
I call the 7 dimensions of any document that affect its usefulness and readability the HOCs & LOCs, which stands for the High Order Concerns and the Low Order Cconcerns. Here they are, in order:
- High Order Concerns (HOCs) = CONTENT, ORGANIZATION, DOCUMENT DESIGN
- Low Order Concerns (LOCs) = Paragraphs, Sentences, Word Choices, Mechanics.
I hope you found this quick review helpful. For more detailed information on the HOCs and LOCs and these POWERFUL WRITING techniques, download our FREE 200-page e-book, Mindful Writing at Work (lots of pictures) here http://qcgwrite.com/mindful-writing-at-work.
If you really want to go into depth on these POWERFUL WRITING techniques or teach these ideas to students, buy our moderately priced textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing from Amazon (prime): https://www.amazon.com/dp/0692520082?m=A7SFQRWTO5QYO.
And let me know if you have any questions.
Contact me if I can be helpful: Harvey@QCGwrite.com
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