Most business people write for a living; they just don't consider themselves writers. They have to distil complex and frequently indistinct, sometimes contradictory, information into a credible, coherent story that sells a product, persuades a client or a boss, garners the funds and motivates the people necessary to accomplish a project, delays a creditor; the list of purposes for business writing is endless.
Workplace-based writing is transactional; your words are supposed to do something for someone in particular: inform, explain, persuade, clarify, motivate. You aren't writing a novel. You aren't writing an academic essay either. The ideal business communication contains a 1::0 information to noise ratio, all information, no noise, no ornaments, no ego. Use the fewest words necessary. The subject matter, the content, is everything. That does not mean, however, the grammar and spelling don't count. The details count more than you might expect. Busy people look for any reason to move on, and a typo might make them hit delete, badly written sentence or a foolish assumption.
Really good writrers draft and revise and proofread tirelessly in private so when they make their writing public, it speaks for itself. A full 3/4s of your time writing should be self-directed, for your eyes only, notes, diagrams, flow charts, graphs, drafts, revisions. The more work you do, the less work your readers have to do, and saving your readers time and effort are mission critical. You want to give your readers a spoonful of honey, not a wagonload of pollen.
Overview of "the Writing Process"
People who teach writing often talk about "the writing process", which consists of gathering, drafting, revising, proofreading, and editing. Talking about writing this way leaves people with the mistaken belief that writing is a linear set of discrete tasks, like that depicted left. Writing is in fact iterative; the tasks blend and recur. Click on the image below on the right to visualize "iterative".
Nevertheless, because writing is so difficult and there are so many things to learn and practice, having a parts lists and a schematic, as it were, may help you get your bearings.
I will give you the view from 36,000 feet first and then some concrete advice and opportunities to practice.
Information gathering is the process of objectively gathering as much content from as many different sources as you can to create an archive. The content you gather can take many forms: words, images, storyboards, audio files, data sets, diagrams, graphs, video clips. During the gathering stage you don't yet know what you want to say, so you can't yet determine the value or even the relevance of anything you put into your archive. The bigger your archive, the better. Build with expansion in mind. Ideally you will get to reuse parts of it for subsequent projects.
For information gathering you might find a program like Evernote or OneNote or Keep helpful because you can keep any kind of digital file in these programs and you can make tags and keywords and otherwise search your information as it grows beyond what you can keep in your own memory.
Most people enjoy information gathering, especially if the subject interests them, and they don't yet have any fixed ideas about it. If you start archiving information with a fixed idea in mind, any information that supports your prior beliefs will please you. But anything that doesn't conform will be a source of dissonance, and you, like me and everyone else, will tend to discount or deny or even entirely overlook any evidence to the contrary. This tendency to seek confirmation and avoid disconfirmation is called the confirmation bias and it is hard to overcome. Try to gather impartially. If you don't, your archive will be misleading.
Data Acquisition -- getting primary content for your archive
Data can be acquired in different ways, resulting in different kinds of evidence, each with its own characteristics, issues, and values.
- Observational data -- you were there
- But did you see it clearly, without perspectival distortion or interpretive bias?
- Did you record it accurately?
- Reported data -- someone who saw what happened wrote it down or recorded it
- Second hand reported data suffers from the same issues as observational data, but human memory is notoriously fallible and audio and video are acquired, typically, from a single vantage point with equipment that has inherent flaws, and thus the recording has to be factored in (perspective distortion, noise)
- Acquired data -- through interviews and questionnaires
- Self-reports are fallible because people lie; they don't remember clearly; they misinterpret the question; they want to be helpful and will say what they think the researchers want to hear; they will make stuff up if they don't have an answer, and they will quit before they finish or just tick option A all the way down.
- Passive data -- machine generated based on user/client activity (aka, data analytics)
- Only as good as the algorithms that identify and record the data. You may have so much of this kind of data that the interpretation process will require careful thinking
- Real time data -- recorded as it happens, updated constantly
- How is the data being acquired? At what point do you stop collecting? What is the context in which the data is being generated? All you have is the changing numbers. You can see patterns in changing numbers, but without knowing what causes the changes you have very little real information even if it is regularly updated
- Historical data -- generated from past records
- The past is no guarantor of the future. Hindsight is perfect. Only the survivors are counted -- whatever didn't make it into the historical record, for whatever reason, is lost and its significance unknowable, which means the known has to be treated as only a fragment of the real.
Here's a cheat sheet for thinking your way through your data:
- What assumptions guided your selection (and rejection) process?
- What does the data teach you?
- How accurate is your knowledge and how certain are you of its accuracy?
- What doubts are there and how strong is each doubt?
- What further research could minimize that doubt?
- What don't you know?
- Your known unknowns
- What do you need to find out?
- What subsequent research is required?
- What will be revealed in the future? And can you wait?
- What are your unknown unknowns?
- The questions that cause the most trouble in life are the ones you don't think to ask, either because you mistakenly thought the answer was obvious or because you had no idea what was coming.
Eventually you will need to shift your focus from gathering to drafting. You need to resist the urge to remain forever in the archival stage, but you also need to avoid sealing the vault. A late arriving piece of information or data may be critical, and it may be merely distracting. So rather than thinking of gathering and drafting as exclusive activities, simply shift the bulk of your attention to one while leaving enough energy for the other.
Drafting (aka thinking with a keyboard or pen) is the initial stages of writing up what you think your archive says. Some people start drafting by writing a detailed outline of the subject, switching back and forth between overview and detail view as ideas occur to them. Some people just start writing and then create an outline after they have a clearer sense of what their data says. You should schedule multiple drafting sessions because not everything will occur to you at once. Some ideas surface slowly. Many people re-read before bed and then revise first thing in the morning. Sleeping on it helps.
Proofreading is the process of fixing the punctuation, catching grammatical errors, refining word choices, recasting sentences to eliminate ambiguity and redundancy, doing in general whatever it takes to increase readability. Efficient typists and good spellers who have a strong command of grammar and punctuation can proofread quickly. Everyone else has to proofread slowly. Novices often confuse proofreading and revising. Proofreading is about surface details. Revision is about re-thinking and re-seeing the data an its implications.
Diligent researchers sit down to proofread a section and find themselves revising a sentence only to get up hours later having re-written the whole thing. No pain, no gain. Trying to figure out how best to say something often leads to clarity about what you are actually trying to say. Proofreading helps you clarify your ideas and clarity leads to effective revision.
Revising is about sorting and organizing ideas in order to clarify what the data says; refining definitions; making careful distinctions among similar things, vivid distinctions among dissimilar things, establishing important connections through correct transitions; responding to anticipated objections; finding and eliminating gaps in the logic, unwarranted assumptions, over-generalizations, needless repetitions. Through revising you might discover that you have more drafting to do, that you haven't yet said everything or that in the process of clarifying the meaning of a key idea you realize you wrote other parts with a fuzzy understanding and now you have to re-write those sections and then look for other places where the fuzziness persists or may have lead to other fuzzy thoughts. Just as proofreading leads to more revising, more revising leads back to the archive and then more drafting. Then the cycle resets.
Editing is the process of making sure the document conforms to the company style sheet (in school that means APA or MLA but businesses have their own style sheets) and community standards before it gets published (or sent up the chain of command). Getting the footnotes and works cited sections right as you go along is a good work habit. Even at this stage you still want to be proofreading, looking for errors, imperfect expressions, opportunities to reduce the word count. With any luck, you won't have to rewrite anything or add substantially to what's there. If you do find a significant gap, then you need to get an extension on the deadline or prepare for the fallout.
You need to develop your own way of writing and refine it over time. If you are like most college students, you already have a writing process and that consists of drafting and proofreading performed in a single session, often the night before an assignment is due. Your mantra is: "The best grade for the least possible effort." Efficiency when it comes to learning is actually suboptimal. The real value of writing is to refine your understanding of things and to question your assumptions and beliefs. You can't learn deeply in a single session any more than you can get fit by working your biceps for fifteen minutes.
Drafting in more detail
Drafting is the process of taking your data and turning it into a coherent message. A complete draft is one that says pretty much everything that needs saying in order for the document to do what it needs to do. If writing were building, the draft would be a signed-off-on blueprint, the foundation laid, and the walls and the roof up. Structural changes at this point are possible but highly undesirable--unbuilding in order to rebuild is very expensive. But writing isn't building. You are working with ideas and words and using a digital medium so you can make big changes late in the process as long as you have the energy and courage to make them.
If you were to watch first-year students writing, you would see them writing the way a person reads. They start in the top left-hand corner and put down word after word, sentence after sentence, line by line. If they mistype, they will backspace from the moment they noticed the mistake back to the mistake, and retype, as if they are laying bricks (in space) rather then typing words on a screen. Finish the sentence, move on to the next. End one paragraph (often because it seems that paragraph is now long enough), move on to the next. Finish the last paragraph, reread from the top looking for spelling and punctuation errors. Done.
First-year students write in a straight line because they are accustomed to timed writing assignments and word counts and because the don't understand the difference between proofreading and revising. When they do have the luxury of writing something over a period of days or even weeks, they prefer to wait until the last moment and then let deadline anxiety focus their attention, essentially replicating the timed writing assignment scenario even when there's time for a more sophisticated writing process. Straight-line writing only works if you really know what you are talking about and what your readers want. It also helps if your readers don't actually need what you have to say in order to do their jobs, a situation that only exists in school. If your boss needs your work to do their job correctly, and you send them some half-baked jumble of sentences. . . .
If you were to watch experienced researchers writing, you would see a very different process, an iterative rather than linear one and one enacted over multiple days rather than a few hours in a row. Experienced writers type an idea, maybe a complete sentence, maybe just a keyword or a subject heading. If they can think of what needs to be said next, they might write a few more sentences, maybe a dozen more if they have a single idea square in their sites. You would see them pause to think, re-read what they just wrote, add something, maybe delete a line or two. Pause to think some more. They might stare at a single sentence for five minutes. If an idea occurs to them that seems important but not closely enough related to be in the same paragraph, they will enter a blank line and then write the sentence down or a key word or a heading. If the idea seems more distantly related, they might add half a dozen blank lines to remind them of the distance. If the two ideas are closely related, but they aren't quite sure how yet, they might just write the word "transition" on a separate line and keep writing. If the experienced researcher isn't certain the idea belongs at all, she might write it down and put a question mark beside it. She may also leave notes to herself, reminders to do something with a section next time she sits down to work on it, or a brief list of other topics she needs to add but doesn't yet have enough time or knowledge for. Or maybe just a question in [square brackets] or a different color, to make sure she doesn't leave it behind when she sends the final version.
Experienced researchers draft in expanding and collapsing outline form because they don't want to forget ideas as they occur to them, but they also know that ideas don't tend to arrive in optimum order, and they don't want to jumble different ideas together -- associative thinking is fine for drafting but readers can't read associative writing because all the implicit knowledge that instantaneously leads the researcher from A to G is missing from the reader's perspective until the writer goes back and fills in the blanks.
You will also see experienced researchers stare hard at a paragraph for minutes at a time, then highlight it and stare some more, and then, sigh, hit delete. Unwriting is a BIG part of effective drafting, and by far the hardest lesson to learn because it feels like going backwards. Travelling even faster down the wrong path won't get you home any quicker.
TransitionsThis outline is an interior monologue. I wrote it for my eyes only, to remind me what I needed to do when I came back. I may move that place holder outline before I fill in its blanks. I may just delete it without ever filling in the blanks. And yes, I might even flesh out the outline and then kill the whole section. #$h!*.
--definition of a transition, diffentiated from a forecast -- list of transition words and phrases -- grouped by application
By the way, when I wrote that outline, I wrote the second item down first, then the third, then went back to the top and added the first, and then I appended "diffentiated [sic.] from a forecast". The outline didn't arrive in order. I didn't spell all the words correctly either and didn't stop to worry about it. When you read the section on transitions you will notice that the finished version is slightly different still (I moved forecasting to the bottom of the section). To me, that's first-level drafting in a nutshell -- get the ideas down; fuss a bit with a preliminary order; write some more; go back and re-think the order; fill in some blanks; move on; come back.
Critically, experienced researchers schedule multiple drafting sessions, letting their ideas ferment in the back of their minds and their thoughts distance themselves from their words, so that when they return to a draft, they can see their work with fresh eyes and greater clarity.
Why drafting is harder than the written makes it look
The flawed writing process that novice researchers employ is partially the fault of the education system they came up in, timed writing assignments, specified word counts, disinterested readers. But novices tend to turn in drafts because they don't always realize what they've written doesn't match what they are thinking.
For researchers, novices and experienced researchers alike, objective interpretation of our own writing is difficult. The nature of that difficulty is neatly explained by the following excerpts, both of which come from a book you should read called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in Psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: "tappers" or "listeners". Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as "Happy Birthday to You" and "The star-Spangled Banner." Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener's job was to guess that song, based on the rhythm being tapped.
Most people guess 50% will guess right.
Only 2.5% of the participants guessed the song correctly.
Why are we so bad at predicting this? Because we can clearly hear the tune we are humming and imagine therefore that our tapping is a perfect representation of the same. Try it. It's not.
If you draft some ideas until they make sense to you, and then walk away and do something else for a few hours, or better yet a day, when you return the tune you were humming will be gone and you will be able to hear what the words are really saying.
Given the following data, what should be the headline for the school newspaper?
Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills high school, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchens, and California Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown.
No school next Thursday.
When we are drafting, especially early on, we are so close to the words we can't see the page. We are so focused on the details we fail to see the implications; we bury the lead, as the journalists say. For most readers, the implications are what matter. No student or parent cares why school is closed on Thursday so much as they care to know that it is. Recipients of research findings are more interested in the results and the implications of the results than they are in the data and only fellow researchers are interested in the methodology that created that data.
Time, the psychological equivalent of distance, allows you to see more clearly what your words are actually saying as well as the implications of your data.
In an ideal world, once you've figured out what your readers need to read and what order they need to read it in, once you've finished drafting, then you can start revising: polishing the sentences, finding exactly the right word, shortening some sentences and lengthening others, changing the order of this and that, eliminating useless repetition, and so on. In an ideal world, revising would be like sanding and varnishing a piece of fine furniture after the construction was complete. If you have to re-glue and re-screw at that point, something has gone terribly wrong. Heaven help you if you have to re-measure once the paint's dry. But writing isn't like building or furniture making. Most of the time you will need to have multiple sessions of draft/proof/revise/draft/proof/repeat because you won't fully understand the message you are trying to convey until later in the process than you would like. So the following advice is offered under the heading of revision with the caveat that some or all of it might also apply during the early, drafting stages, while the points you are trying to make are still partially buried in stone, as it were.
What kind of X is this X? When you see a comparative adjective like "better", ask yourself, what kind of "better" (more, superior, rarer, preferred) and "better than what?" Comparative adjectives logically require two items or more, but often we will use implied comparisons, say that something is better.
What kind of X is this X applies to nouns as well. Our minds tend to work from generalizations of personal experiences and so when we write we tend to grab a place-holder word, something more general than what we ultimately need. So, for example, we might write "house" even though we are talking about a townhouse or a condominium or an apartment or, and this is a bit more nuanced, not a house at all but rather a home. So after you've written house down and finished the thought, later in that sitting or a day or more late, go back and ask yourself, what kind of house is this house? Is it actually a dwelling place or am I really talking about a state of mind, a sense of belonging and well being?
A few lines up this screen I wrote "a local example" and then twenty minutes later looked at it again and asked myself, what kind of example is this "example", hence "a local example" became "a local example of drafting," and several days later "a local example of what I mean by drafting." Context may have been enough to convey the thought, but readers shouldn't have to make inferences.
On a shallower level, specificity also means finding words that point to other words and making sure they point clearly. Often it's best to replace the pointing word with the word it points to. So, if you begin a sentence with "this," make sure your readers will know what "this" refers to and seriously consider replacing it with the subject of the previous sentence. Same goes for "it" and the other relative pronouns.
If a statement can be interpreted in different ways, it is ambiguous. Ambiguity can be hard to track down because you know what you mean, your assumptions inform your expectations of meaning. Other assumptions might lead to other interpretations. Remember the tappers and the listeners.
When were you born?
- In the summer
- At the turn of the last century
- October 3, 2000
Clarity is the opposite of ambiguity, metaphorically, the same object observed from the same angle in the same light with the same instrument. What does a red apple look like to a color blind person?
To clarify, look for words with multiple meanings, look at the opposite word, look for synonyms, near and far. Identify assumptions, prior knowledge's influence on interpretation, trigger words. shared context and shared attitudes lead to same interpretation but allow different responses. (If the answer is always the same, why ask? If the question is interpreted differently, the answers aren't meaningful)
Try to identify social lenses that influence perception, connotation, and even denotation. The same word might be clear to all but mean different things to different groups. Consider the word "best". Product x is best:
- To accountants, best might mean cost effective
- To teachers, best might mean user-friendly
- To marketer, best might mean newest
Product x might be best in all these ways but if not, then the word will infuriate those whose criteria it doesn't meet.
Scrutinize abstract words and use only when necessary and not open to interpretation.
However, intentional ambiguity can be useful.
- If you want people to hear what they want to hear.
- If you want to avoid responsibility, or spare feelings, or sound clever to those who can see your intention to be ambiguous.
- If you are speaking to someone who is very powerful in your life, you might find being ambiguous can protect you from being obviously at odds with what they want, especially if you don't know what they want. Because people tend to fill in the blanks with whatever they think belongs there, if you can anticipate how a given person will fill in the blank, you can increase their engagement by making them feel smart and with you. But if they fill in the blank in a way that doesn't serve your needs, then you've miscommunicated. Mind the gaps.
People hear what they want to hear, so an ambiguous statement can make it easier for them to hear what they want without you having to commit or running the risk of saying something they don't want to hear. Writing in empty phrases unintentionally is sloppy thinking. Using empty phrases intentionally to mislead or manipulate is reprehensible unless the audience is in danger and can't be helped to a better understanding by less manipulative means.
Animate -- The Ladder of abstraction
Ambiguous is not the same thing as abstract. Abstractions are not objects in the world but ideas people have about how the world works, generalizations about experience and feelings. Abstractions are real even though you can't see or feel them directly. By substituting a concrete representation for an abstraction, you can help people see and feel an idea.
We use abstractions all day long -- love, hate, crime, justice, friendship. We tend to use these words as though they mean the same thing to everyone and the meaning is obvious. We shouldn't. Unless you are using a technical vocabulary -- acceleration means something in physics (change of velocity per unit of time), something else in automotives (increase in speed), something else in education (moving more quickly through a curriculum than one's peers) -- you should make sure you readers know exactly what you mean when you use an abstract concept. Either tell them what you mean by it or give an example or both. If you are using a concept in an unconventional way, make sure you say so. If you give them a concrete representation of the abstraction, make sure it's not just a cliché or a worn out stereotype -- mother and child for devotion borders on the cliché. Big brother and little sister might be more effective, because less expected, but if a reader had a big brother who was a jerk, the image might not work. What you want is familiar enough to be recognizable but not so common as to be boring. You also want to make sure you aren't making assumptions you readers don't share.
One technique for discovering the meaning behind the concept is to look for a scene that depicts it. What does success look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? What does it taste like? What does it smell like? If you can't find a real representation of the abstraction, maybe you don't yet fully understand it.
A strong writer in full control of her work can switch concrete for abstract and abstract for concrete at will and does so in order to guide her readers to the places she needs them to be. Notice I wrote "places" rather than "ideas." "Places" are abstract, but not as abstract as "ideas."
If drafting is about getting all the ideas down, and revising is about making sure the ideas are correct and correctly expressed, then arrangement is the process of turning what makes sense to you into something that will make sense to your readers.
Arrangement is about the order of sentences within a paragraph, paragraphs within a section, and sections within the whole document. Some documents have a template that relieves the writer of the burden of sorting the sections, but even then you will need to make sure you are putting the right information in the right place. Just as polishing a sentence may reveal an important meaning you missed, so arranging and rearranging the sentences in a paragraph my help you more fully realize your message. Getting the arrangement right will certainly save you readers time by keeping them from objecting before the reason for agreeing arrives, or getting lost in details before the big picture is given, or getting stuck in the weeds because you didn't clear the path.
Consider the paragraph below. Are the sentences in the right order? If they seem jumbled, what would be the optimal order? What words clued you to the most meaningful order? If you aren't sure of the order, highlight the paragraph with your mouse.
- For the best hackey sack players, just keeping the ball off the ground and the game going isn't enough. 7
- The hackey sack is a small leather ball. 2
- Hackey sack is a game played by two or more people. 1
- Hands are forbidden and the penalty for using them is banishment from the circle. 6
- But you can't use your hands. 5
- You can use any part of your body. 4
- The object is to keep the ball off the ground. 3
What about this one? If you aren't sure, highlight the paragraph with your mouse.
- They were the smartest, and took their seats near the center. 2
- Most said hello as they entered, but their voices were more hesitant than usual, as if they weren't sure that it was really me they were addressing. 4
- I arrived in my classroom ten minutes before the bell rang, just as the first of my students trickled in. 1
- The rest arrived in no discernible order, but I noticed that all of them, smart and stupid alike, seemed hardly to talk, or, if they talked, it was only in whispers. 3
To some extent the optimal order of the sentences in a paragraph is determined by the subject and the place that paragraph has among the other paragraphs. If you are providing instruction, start with the big picture (literally a picture of the finished product if possible). Then give step one, then step two and so on sequentially to the end. If you are building a case, start with the smallest important point and proceed incrementally to the biggest (build to a crescendo). If you are describing a space, tell your readers what the point of view is and then pan across the scene in a specific order, say from left to right or up to down.
Here are some general principles of arrangement.
- Each paragraph should have just one idea.
- Provide the big picture before the details.
- Define before you evaluate.
- Name before you describe. (unless you are going for the big reveal, which is a bad idea for business writers)
- Say why something matters before you explain it.
- Correct misperceptions and eliminate false assumptions at the beginning.
- Answer questions as they would occur to a reader (not necessarily in the order they occurred to you).
- If you need to make a potentially inflammatory statement, something you have reason to believe your audience might reflexively reject, provide a context before you make the statement.
- Establish your credibility before providing advice.
- Make sure you understand where your audience is standing in relation to the object you are describing, and that they are looking at the same object you are, before you start describing it. The same advice holds for abstractions. Make sure you define the same terms in the same way, share the same assumptions, and draw inferences in the same way.
If you are having trouble visualizing alternative orders, put each key idea (perhaps each topic sentence) on a PowerPoint slide and then use slide sorter view to sort and think,
An introduction should
- State the subject
- Explain the document's purpose (why was it written and for whom? Does the date matter?)
- Explain its structure
- Provide any necessary instructions to readers
- Direct readers' with different purposes to the appropriate sections
A conclusion should
- Be provided only if necessary
- Remind the reader of the key points
- Remind them what they need to do next
- Remind them why they need to do it or encourage them to if necessary
Transitions connect one idea to the next. They help create a sense of coherence by clearly identifying the relationship between two parts of a document, typically paragraphs or sections but you may need a transitional word or phrase between sentences as well, like when you are contrasting two ideas and want to signal that you are moving from the first to the second. Transitions can be hard to come by because we don't always know why we want to say next what we have written next. If you have a draft but no outline, try creating an outline using the topic sentence of each paragraph, then look at how the topic sentences hang together.
The list of typical relationships signaled by transitions is fairly short.
- differentiate (contrast)
- compare (similarity)
- chronology (time)
- limit (boundary)
The list of words and phrases that signal each of these transitions is quite a bit longer. You can find such lists all over the internet. Better yet, you should start making your own lists by identifying and recording transitions as you read. Remember, you need to be reading for content and form.
As you are writing a draft, if you can't figure out why you've placed two sections one after the other, review the list above and see which one seems most plausible. If you're still not certain, search the net for transitions that signal X, where X is cause or limit or whatever and see if any of what comes back clarifies the relationship for you.
If you are creating a very long document, one that has more than say five lengthy sections, then you may want to link each big section to the next with a summary and forecast, a macro transition that helps your readers hold in working memory everything they need to do what the document needs them to do. A typical summary/forecast looks something like: In this section we looked at A,B,C in order to R. In order to get from R to U, we will need to blah, blah, blah, which we will do in the next section. Be careful here, however. Meta discourse like this can help a reader, but often we will use it to help ourselves as we draft, to remind ourselves what this section is supposed to be about or to make a stab and making connections with subsequent sections. That kind of meta discourse is not helpful to readers and you want to make sure you eliminate it from the final version.
Sentence-level revision is the process of hammering on sentences until they are thin enough to see through. Getting a sentence just right is difficult even for experienced researchers. Novices are often too quick to fall in love with (or settle for) what they've just written. Persistent effort over time can make you a more fluid writer. Learn how to apply the sentence-level revision guidelines and practice every day.
Strictly speaking, editing is the process, usually done late in a document development cycle, of making the sentences, images, and content in general, conform to community standards as published in an authorized handbook (aka a style sheet). If you are writing an essay for a typical English class, the relevant style sheet is the Modern Language Association Style Guide (MLA) style guide. If the work is for Psychology, the style sheet is American Psychological Association (APA). If you work for Microsoft, your style manual is the Microsoft Manual of Style (MMS).
Style manuals contain information about citing sources, capitalization, punctuation, and various fine points of other mechanics. They do not cover grammar, which you are supposed to have learned in K-8, but which nearly everyone needs to be reminded of regularly. Editing is a white-glove quality assurance process that takes place just before publication. Experienced writers tend to produce revised drafts that are pretty close to conforming and so don't require much editing. Less experienced writers typically need to spend more time editing.
How to Give Feedback and Collaborate
Sharing drafts with trusted mentors is an important part of career development. Reading drafts for others is an important way to build trust and respect. You need to fight the urge to say, "This is great!" when what you really mean is "I don't have time" or "I don't want to offend you" or "please be nice to me in return." But you don't want to be a jerk either.
- Don't evaluate, describe and advise.
- Not, "I like this", but "This section answers all relevant questions clearly" (not how you feel but why you feel it)
- Not, "This makes no sense," but "I'm not following you here. Are you saying X or Y or have I missed something?"
- Not, "This is out of place", but "move this to page 3, paragraph 2."
- Rather than saying, "I don't understand this", ask the question you need answered in order to understand
- Point out places where multiple interpretations are possible.
- "Did you mean X or Y"?
- Ask them to elaborate where necessary by asking probing questions, the answers to which will fill in the gaps you've noticed.
- Ask them about how they perceive their intended audience, their needs, prior beliefs, expectations, and reading tendencies.
If you think of writing as personal expression then you may find collaborating difficult, other people wanting to speak for you or say your ideas in their words. If you save personal expression for moments other then getting work done at work, and don't take criticism personally, you will be more helpful to others and have a better time working with others.
Being able to identify what kind of thinker/communicator someone else is may improve your interactions with them, especially if you understand what kind of thinker/communicator you are and how that type refracts other types. Some people, for example, don't like to be challenged and so you need to lead them to the necessary conclusion rather than just saying it out loud. Others don't want to contribute even though they have valuable contributions to make because they are focused on other matters or don't want to impose their ideas. You need to help the former focus and draw the latter out. Some people are going to want more control than others. Some people are going to have a lot to say but write little in the end.
Writing in committee, everyone together at once or writing simultaneously in a shared document can be chaotic and counterproductive. Better, usually, assign or suggest sections, have everyone write his or her section. Then either let an appointed editor revise the whole or have a collective meeting first, have each one revise his or her section, and then have the last clean up done by one person.
A Researcher's Writing Checklist
⬜ The minute you get a research assignment, place the due date on your calendar and block some time each day on the days between now and then to work on the project, with increasing duration and levels of intensity. Don't give yourself too much slack and NEVER do it all the day before it's due unless you really know your stuff or you just don't care, either about your grades or your self-development. In my experience, for what it's worth, the people who got effortless A's didn't get as far as the one who had to struggle for a B+.
⬜ Review the writing prompt or research question carefully.
⬜ Make a list of the kinds of information you will need and where to find it.
⬜ Get the information (gather the data)
⬜ Explain the information to yourself -- draft/think/draw/record. Plan for and have multiple drafting sessions.
⬜ Once you have convinced yourself you know what the data says, think about how best to explain it to someone else, and then start revising with their needs and beliefs in mind.
⬜ At this point you will have a complete, polished piece of work.
⬜ Before you send it up the chain of command, do a pre-mortem. If you don't get what you expected, what will likely be to blame? (Where are you weak?)
⬜ Send it.
⬜ When the results are in, do a post-mortem. Don't take negative feedback personally (hard, I know). Don't take positive feedback personally either (even harder). Think about how you will improve your process for the next time around. Make some notes to yourself that you can review before the next time comes around.