Dear document reviewers

Dear document reviewers,

It’s not about you.

It’s about whether the document is fit for purpose (and fit for its readers).

In my estimation, about 70% of all feedback from reviewers of documents in the workplace is not based on correctness or making a document fit for purpose. It’s editing or rewriting or suggestions for change based on I’d say it differently.

Do you have any idea how unhelpful that is?

  1. It’s demotivating for writers because they can never be mind-readers – they can’t actually emulate your voice.
  2. It’s an incredible waste of time. The writers spend time writing, the reviewers spend time reviewing, the writers spend time changing.

And why?

All because the reviewer has a preferred way of expressing an idea.

Not because it’s correcting an error. Not because it improves the document. Not because it’s better for readers.

One of my dreams for the universe is that all people tasked with reviewing documents in the workplace would be trained in the art and skill of doing so.

Even if the main thing they learned was the ability to use one filter question as they reviewed, the world would be a happier place.

The question?

Does this NEED to be improved,

or do I just want to change it to the way I would write it?

I’m not suggesting that we’re egomaniacs.  One part of human nature means that when someone asks for our eyes over a document, we have to make some suggestions to show we put some effort in, or that we have something of value to contribute. There’s another part of human nature that means we’re predisposed to think there’s one right way, and also predisposed to think that our way is right.

I actually believe it takes a high level of EQ and a decent amount of self-discipline to apply this filter while reviewing a document.

And I am ever the optimist.

Dear document reviewers,

Why don’t you save us all some time?

Back the truck up. And let your writers have their own voice.

Writing for outcomes part 3 – tools for document structure

OK, so you’ve taken care of your up-front framing, and you’ve started to drill down to the clarity you need to write an amazing, fit-for-purpose document that’s gonna help you take over the universe.

But now you’ve got to the real guts of it:  what do you actually write??? (Press play for dramatic sound effect.)

Why is writing so hard?

So here’s the thing.  You know your stuff.  And that’s both a blessing and a curse, because

  1. you know everything your reader needs to know, but
  2. YOU KNOW FAR MORE THAN YOUR READER NEEDS TO KNOW!

And you really want your reader to know all that, too.  Which is a mistake.

Because let me be clear: the more words you use, the weaker the message.

Yes, I said it.  The key to good writing is to write less.  The more words you use—the more text on a page, the more you think in someone’s general direction—the more likely they are to miss your point.  Your bottom line.  Your slap in the face.  Or kick in the ass.  Or pat on the back (I thought I’d better add in a warm fuzzy—apparently my violent alter-ego is writing today).

Filtering through everything you know and want to say—and stripping back to only the key points—is the real challenge.

A process for stripping back

First of all, read and follow the steps I gave you in part 1.  Then part 2.  There’s stuff in there you need to produce before you follow this process.

Once you’ve nailed that, do this:

  1. DUMP – get that shit out of your head. Brain dump.    Sketch, purge, freewrite, list, use Post-its.  Do whatever you need to do, to get your thinking outside of your head.  Because outside is where you can work with it.
  2. CHUNK – take that messy dump and group it together into chunks of related info. (If you wanna feel really cool, call this a thematic analysis.)
  3. LABEL – describe each of those chunks of info. But don’t use one-word labels.  Describe the chunk, like ‘How we got here’, ‘What we found’, ‘How we can fix the problem’.  These will become your headings.  And your readers will love them!
  4. FILTER – using the purpose and the primary reader you identified in part 2, look at each beautifully labelled chunk and ask Does my reader need to know THIS for my document to achieve its purpose? Now here’s the gold (I love this. I’m excited.  Can you tell?). If your answer is:
    • YES – put it in! YUSS!
    • NO – leave it out! DUH.
    • MAYBE / I’M NOT SURE / SOME READERS NEED IT – then either mention it, summarise it, point the reader to where they can find it outside of the document, or push it to the appendices. When in doubt, go to the appendix.  It’s like magic.  All the evidence that you know your stuff and you’ve done a shitload of work and you’re worth your weight in gold, without losing your reader.
  5. ORDER – look at the chunks you have left and put them in order based on what’s most important to YOUR READER.

Now you have a plan!

Some people might call it an outline.  But that sends way too many of us back into PTSD-like flashbacks from our university days.  So let’s just call it a plan.  A map, maybe.

That plan means you can now write.  With ease and clarity.  Without second-guessing yourself and angsting over what to say or what not to say.  It means you can write fast and that’s good on every level (read here for how good writing saves money).

Your extra set of steak knives

My favourite thing about this process is this: it gives you confidence.  It’s one of the most common comments I get from participants in my trainings: I feel confident now.  I know what I’m doing.  I can relax. (Press play for a heavenly chorus celebrating your  amazingness.)

And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.  Now write!