Some smart, short ways to write successful long documents

Although perhaps not as terrifying as the thought of writing a whole book, the prospect of writing a detailed report, lengthy proposals, a white paper, a business plan or other similar long writing project can be pretty daunting. Many people feel very nervous about writing anything longer than a page or two, but provided you have plenty to write about, ironically it’s often easier to write at length than it is to condense information into a short piece.

Don’t try to rush the planning stage and don’t rush into writing the first page. Carry a notebook around with you and scribble ideas, reminders and any other inspiration you get while doing the chores or shopping for groceries. Play around with spider maps or PC based mind-mapping programs or whatever works best for you. The time spent will repay itself many times over.

Even if you know your subject matter and your audience backwards, it pays to spend some time getting your information and your thinking together informally, before you write anything much. Make sure you have assembled all the necessary research and background material and then be pretty tough with it, only selecting that which is completely relevant.

As always, decide from the beginning what it is you want to achieve with this document (not merely what you want to say) and keep that in mind as your key goal.

It helps enormously to work to a closely defined structure. In fact I would say that’s essential. The more detailed your structure the easier it will be to write the document. Spend a good chunk of time planning it and ensuring that your running order makes sense. Subdivide sections down into bullet point structures of their own and flesh those out as far as you can.

Regardless of your document ’s length, structure is important. If you need inspiration, go back to what you want to achieve with the document – then break that down into stages.

Then, flesh out each stage with bullet points of the information that belongs there. Number sections of printed research material to match the numbering on your structure, so it’s easy to find when you come to incorporate it. Cut and paste relevant research text into the corresponding place in your draft document on screen.

With each element that you add, keep refining the overall structure of each section of your document and making sure it runs in logical order. Add notes as you think of them, refine paragraphs you’ve jotted down earlier.

Now you need to take the plunge and start writing prose. Because you have mapped out the content of your document so carefully and thoroughly, you’ll find that some it has already started to write itself. Your job then becomes one of linking and smoothing, rather than having to think up stuff from scratch. This method doesn’t remove the fear of writing altogether (if you’re that way inclined) but it certainly makes it a lot easier.

And when you’ve finished your first draft, try if you can to take a break from it. Even a five-minute walk or a trip to the water cooler is better than nothing. No matter how happy you have felt with your text before the break, I can guarantee that when you look at your work afresh you’ll find things you want to improve on. This gets you into editing mode – almost as important as the writing itself.

Take your time over your editing process. And most important of all, be hard on yourself. Put yourself firmly in the shoes of a potential reader and ask yourself if – in this role – you would a) understand everything and b) find it interesting. If the answer is no to either then rewrite the section concerned until it is a) understandable and b) interesting.

A third and final criterion you need to apply to a business document is that it must c) achieve its objectives. Really, you should ensure that every sentence in some way contributes to your ultimate goal, and be very strict about deleting material that doesn’t earn its keep. Whether it’s a 100 word email or a 100,000 word book, no reader wants to feel that his or her time is being wasted on waffle.

And finally, don’t over-edit. Sharpen up your text until you’re happy with it, and by all means show it to a colleague or friend to get an independent opinion. But if you’re too enthusiastic with the pruning shears – and/or you let too many people dictate changes and edits – your document will lose its momentum and personality. As any author will tell you, you’ll always find something to tweak or rewrite, no matter how much editing you do. So you just have to be realistic and decide “that’s it, it’s OK now” and hit the send or print button.

Any questions or comments? Please share them here!

Now, let’s get your  long document written perfectly…

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  3. says:

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