My workshop participants know I am a fan of thinking and outlining before writing. And now I have proof that it creates a better document more efficiently.
Recently, I had to write a big document that put forward my side of an argument. My brother offered to help me, so I decided, as an experiment (and probably because I was feeling lazy) to let him lead the process. Jack’s plan was for me to choose three or four main themes and write about them: just ‘let it all out, let it flow’. And then we’d collate the writing and tidy it up at the end.
So most nights for a week or two, I sat up in bed and typed on my various themes. I produced quite a bit! Jack looked at it and added more. And then he said, ‘It’s almost there Colleen. We just need to tidy it up a wee bit. You do editing — off you go.’
And then I regretted our approach. I had miles and miles of repetitive content. It was inaccurate and exaggerated (way too many adverbs!) and it took me weeks of bashing away at the document to prod it into a decent shape.
By typing on a theme, I was ‘thinking by writing’: discovering what I thought by writing about it. It felt safe, productive, and easy, but it wasn’t productive. I didn’t produce quality.
And it took forever. The whole process felt more difficult than it should have been. I don’t think the final version was that great. It certainly didn’t convince the reader!
So, from now on, even when I write with Jack, I promise I’ll follow my own advice.
Think: Think about who your reader is and what they need, define the purpose of your document, state the outcome you want it to achieve, and identify your main messages.
Outline: Write each main message as a short sentence, and put them in order of importance to your reader (most important first, least important last). Turn them into level-1 headings. Break down each main message into its sub-points, and write each sub-point as a sentence. Format them as level-2 headings. Then write the first sentence of each paragraph. Keep them short too.
Read what you’ve got. Does it make sense? Does the argument flow? Make sure your content works ‘as is’.
Write: Fill in the blanks. Write enough detail under each first sentence to convince your reader that the point is valid. Write explanations, give examples, and present your evidence.
Edit: Read it through from start to finish. Does any part feel tricky to read? Do you have to read sentences twice? Fix them so they read easily. Consider adding guidance words like ‘however’ and ‘therefore’ to create greater flow.
Proofread: Run the spell and grammar checker, then print out the document. Read it slowly and carefully to spot errors and inconsistencies.
It separates thinking from writing. It creates the skeleton of your argument before you get bogged down in details. It creates a document that works well for busy readers — they glance at your headings and understand your argument. And it’s more likely to create a lean document, as you start with less content and work up to more only as needed.