Corinna Lines | June 19, 2019
Are you more comfortable with ‘the big picture’? Or with detail? My work as an editor and proofreader is often at the ‘detail’ end of the spectrum. But in my life I’ve come to realise that detail is no good without context. We need to know what bigger picture that detail fits into — the purpose.
For example, at high school I was fascinated by the names in the Periodic Table of the Elements. I dutifully learned the first 10 elements… but never knew what the actual table was for! (Later I married a chemistry graduate, and made the mistake of asking him.)
Also in Year 10 Science, we learned about mitosis. But why? And refraction of light. Again, why? Looking back, I think we were being introduced to chemistry, biology, physics. But because nobody talked about the bigger picture or the context, I had no idea what any of it was about. What a missed opportunity to get kids interested in science!
Adventures are an important part of life. Sometimes it’s fine to have a good idea and set off in pursuit, wherever it takes you. Sometimes it’s fine to follow your nose and discover things along the way by chance. But this approach may not be realistic in work, or with major life decisions.
At Write, before we start working on any document we ask the client to identify the purpose and the audience. How much harder is it to write a document if you don’t know those answers? How often are we tempted to ‘just start typing’ without making a plan? And how much extra work does this make for us? Why type everything we know about a subject only to have to whittle it down to what’s actually useful?
Taking this technique out into the world, almost any task or goal in life can be made clearer if we clarify the purpose first. Why do I need more suede boots? (This is a rhetorical question.) Why do I want (or not want) a promotion? Why am I planning to retire at 45 (or 85)? Where do I want to get to in my career or working life? Why do I need a bigger/smaller house? What is my 5- or 10- or 20- or 40-year goal?
Try to define any purpose in a concrete way. If you want your child to practise piano scales but they think it’s boring, you might explain what the benefit is for them. If you hate going to the gym, focusing on what you’ll gain from it may motivate you. If you have to write a difficult document, find out what it’s trying to achieve. How will the reader benefit from it? Perhaps the hardest documents are those that are just to ‘note’ or ‘record’ something. It’s hard to get excited about that, just like piano scales or the gym. But you can still aim to do it well.
Life would be much simpler if it came with directions. But with a document, you can think of it having a ‘map’ and help your reader navigate their way through it. Start with setting out exactly what the document aims to do — this is your purpose. For example, it might report on something, give recommendations, present options, show costs and benefits, inform or inspire.
Headings and subheadings are what we often call ‘signposts’ in a document. They help break information into digestible chunks, and give the reader highlights to help them find what they’re looking for.
Living with purpose and writing with purpose have many parallels. People are much harder to pin down than documents, but you can perhaps streamline your workload in life as well as work — by looking for signposts and thinking about your purpose before you pick up your pen, or your passport, or the keys to a new car, house, office. Life offers so many choices. Sorting out your purpose may help you find your way through the maze.
Write offers training in all sorts of areas (we may not be able to sort out your life choices, but we do like to help!). Have a look at the workshops we offer, ranging from the big picture (Critical Thinking) to detail (Editing and Proofreading).