Putting the Pro Back in Professional Writing: 1 of 3
The ability to write well on the job can help you differentiate yourself. It allows you to demonstrate expertise, communicate important information, or make a compelling argument. Aside from practical uses in emails and letters, writing well can be an effective marketing tool as well – either for your personal or professional brand. Even though writing is so prevalent in the workplace, it’s a skill that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
After surveying nearly 50 undergraduate students who took my professional writing class one year, their top three complaints about writing:
It Takes Too Long
I Don’t Know How to Get Started
I Hate Grammar and Punctuation
are the same issues that many other, more seasoned professionals grumble about, too. This post is first in a series of “Putting the ‘Pro’ Back in Professional Writing.”
Complaint #1: It Takes Too Long
This is understandable. Even writing a few cohesive paragraphs can be intimidating to someone who considers himself a poor writer. This is where outlines come in.
Solution: Create an Outline
An outline forces you to organize your thoughts before writing and see your writing from the “big picture.” So, what should be included?
Audience: To whom are you writing? Be as specific as possible. Often, the message will vary depending on the audience’s needs, preferences, and knowledge about the subject. Allow yourself to see your topic through your audience’s eyes, and try to anticipate their questions, objections, and opinions. Incorporate these into your writing.
Purpose: Why are you writing? Ask on behalf of your audience “what’s in it for me." If you can’t answer this succinctly, keep working at it.
Scope: Clearly define what you’re writing about, and what you’re not. Defining the scope helps you avoid spending too much time writing about something that’s irrelevant for your argument.
Main Point: What is the one key idea, or overarching theme, of your topic? If your audience has just one takeaway after your writing, what would it be?
Now, you’ve addressed the most important parts. You know to whom you’re talking, why, and to what end . Plus, you know what you’re not talking about – equally as important.
Finally, lay out your topic. This part is fluid, and can (and probably will) evolve. As you're writing, refer back to your purpose – do your points support the "why" or do they detract from it?
Working Title: Frame your title as a thought-provoking question or declarative statement that will get your audience’s attention. Think of it like this: when you Google something, and you see the ads pop up beside your search results, what motivates you to click?
Supporting Points: For a standard professional document, limit yourself to no more than four or five supporting points (on the high end). The shorter the document – like a blog post –the fewer supporting points you’ll have. Once again, stay focused – be concise in your outline, and you’re more likely to be concise in your final document.
Use only one sentence for each point; this will help keep you focused. Bullet points work well, because you’re almost forced into using sentence fragments. There are different organizational strategies you can use; the two most basic options are least to most important and logical sequence. In other words, what flows well from one point to the next; like telling a story.
I lost count of how many conversations I had with students whose writing started out scattered and unfocused. When asked about their outline, they said “I don’t have time to write an outline.” So we took 10 or 15 minutes and brainstormed an outline together - the same one listed above. 9 times out of 10, the next response was “that makes sense now!”
The outline is so often overlooked, because it’s considered useless or too time-consuming. A good outline might take 30 minutes or so to write, but it will save countless hours, frustration, and unnecessary revisions later.
Next in this series of posts, we’ll tackle Complaint #2: I Don’t Know How to Get Started. Stay tuned.
Reprinted from LinkedIn, original post 6/26/15