Chances are you’re a crappier writer than you realize, and your job is at least partly to blame. Like most people, you write most often when you’re texting or sending emails rather than composing formal documents, which your job might not require you to do very often to begin with.
So when you are suddenly given a writing assignment at work, your writing skills will probably be rusty. Worse still, you aren’t likely to get much feedback about the quality of your writing, which makes it hard to know where or how to improve. But before dashing off another badly written report or memo, consider taking these five steps to help you wind up with a draft you can be proud of.
1. Outline It First
A common issue with most people’s work writing is that the individual sentences make sense, but they don’t add up to a coherent document. This goes for even relatively short pieces of writing, too. But rather than just diving in and getting it over with, take five minutes to sketch out a rough outline–that’s all it takes.
Maybe you haven’t done that since high school, but you don’t need to follow the traditional format with Roman numerals, letters, and numbers. Just get some bullet points down with a few general phrases so you have a sense of the structure and flow of whatever you’re about to write.
Then, look at your outline and try to imagine it from the perspective of your reader. Will someone who doesn’t already know what you’re trying to say have any idea what you mean? If not, think about what information they might need, and add to or reorder your outline as needed.
2. Turn Your Outline Into Section Headings
Lots of people draw up outlines, then keep them on hand while writing their drafts, only to find themselves veering off course anyway. To avoid that, use the outline itself as the actual skeleton of your document–not just as general inspiration. Turn each bullet point into a section heading.
Once your document is more than a page long, you need to divide it up into bite-size chunks for your reader. I run a master’s program at the University of Texas, and you would be surprised at the number of papers I get from working professionals that are more than 10 pages long without any subsections to break things up. When I look at a paper that long and don’t see any section headings, I know I’m in for a slog.
3. Draw Up A Writing Schedule (The Earlier The Better)
Of course, it’s hard to begin with an outline if you start working on a long report for your boss the day before you’re supposed to hand it in. As soon as you’re given a writing assignment–or after you’ve finished outlining, take your pick–you should write down the steps you’ll need to take to get it done: Who needs to give you information in order to complete various sections of the project? What research will you have to gather yourself? Do you want your colleague to read through your first draft?
After you make your list of these steps, estimate the amount of time each one will take. Then add that up, and double it. Most things take longer than you expect them to, but that’s especially true of work writing–particularly if you don’t do it that often. Otherwise you’re likely to type a lot of words in a mad fury to finish on time, only to wind up with a boring, confusing, badly organized mess of a document that nobody understands.
4. Set Aside Some Writing Time
Unlike other to-do list items, writing isn’t one of those things you can do in the shreds of time between meetings. In order to write coherently, you need to keep the broad structure of what you’re writing in mind. That not only takes focus, it requires a few minutes of settling in–reacquainting yourself with the scope and sequence of your document each time you restart work on it. So if you only do a little work on it here and there, in short bursts, you’ll actually waste a lot of time just trying to reorient yourself with it.
Plus, the more you stop and start working on a project (writing or otherwise), the more likely you are to forget something you already added–and may end up repeating yourself as a result. This is particularly true when there are facets of a report that could end up in more than one section. You may write it once, walk away from your draft, and then come back and add the same tidbit to a different section.
5. Read Over What You Wrote–Preferably Out Loud
Always read over your draft after you’ve finished it. People are often in such a rush to wrap up writing assignments that they don’t bother to review them once they’re done. That’s a recipe for all sorts of mistakes, omissions, and bad prose.
But don’t just give it a cursory skim, glancing over the page itself to spot check for glaring errors. Read it carefully–line by line. You’ll notice a missing word, phrase, or sentence, and catch ideas that don’t flow as well into one another as they probably could.
This review process is basically a way of editing your own work, but it only works if you deliberately slow down. A good way to do that is to read your document out loud to yourself. Yes, this can feel silly. But you’ll be a lot better at detecting problems this way–clunky expressions, bad transitions, typos, and so on.
Reading out loud won’t help you to make sure that your document had a good overall structure, though. That’s why you need to be happy with your outline at the beginning, then stick to it. So if you’re concerned at this late stage that your document doesn’t make sense organizationally, it’s worth asking somebody else to read it over for you and make some bigger-picture suggestions about what to change.
Unfortunately, these five steps take time. But the simple truth is that better writing takes some extra effort and planning, especially if your job doesn’t demand you to churn out brilliant copy on a daily basis. On the upside, writing is a skill. If you work on improving, you will get better–which won’t just impress your boss and colleagues, but also save you time on future writing assignments in the long run.