The Better Business Writing Blog
Ideas and tips for marketers, copywriters, and editors.
Got a writing task that's got you wondering, "How the heck am I going to do this?" You're in the right place.
The tips that follow will apply to any substantial piece of writing. For the sake of this post, let's pretend you're writing a brochure that will explain your team to the rest of your organisation. So whenever you see the word "brochure," substitute the name of whatever it is you've got to produce.
First, take a deep breath.
Second, keep in mind that every writing job you'll ever do will always start from scratch, no matter how many times you've done it before. That's because every writing task, like every story, is different. If it weren't, you could cut 'n' paste. But since you can't do that, you need a process.
Like this one.
1. Get the building blocks of your story
Good business writing fills a blank spot in someone's mind with useful information. So start by getting a bunch of information together. It may not all be used in the final product, but that's not the point right now.
Your point here is to gather the seeds that will sprout into your final content.
Ask questions about your team from your target reader's point of view: what will they benefit from knowing? Ask questions like:
The Pareto Principle applies here. In the end, 20% of your facts will tell 80% of your story. But that 20% comes from the 80% of the information you gather. So get gathering, and gather widely. You'll condense it all later. And from within what you gather, parts of your final product will begin to suggest themselves.
Do yourself a big favour and DON'T START WRITING YET. Well, okay: maybe you can write a little. Just keep your main focus on getting all your information together. And keep your real writing mojo for later when you've settled into your structure.
2. Structure is everything. Go get some.
The art of writing can only come to life through the science of it, and the science of it starts and ends with structure. So the first thing you need to do when drafting is plot the course that you want your readers to follow.
Structure gives your readers a clear path. Relax into the fact that you're unlikely to get it right first time. But at the same time, you must act as if you will. So pick a structure and start adding your information to it. Get a sense of how well it will hold together.
And if you don't have a structure?
2 . Turn your challenge into a question and google it.
If you really needed to read that tip, then tattoo it on the back of your hand so you never forget it.
Every business communication you're ever likely to write has been written before. Guaranteed. So get into your browser, google any variant of words like "how to write a brochure that describes my team" and see what pops up. You are bound to find ideas in similar work that someone else has done before.
Download and delve into examples, lots of them. The effective ones will announce themselves to you because they'll draw you in and you'll start to feel like you're wasting too much time reading them ...
... which is excellent. These are exactly the ones to model your brochure on.
3. Brazenly copy an appealing structure
If any given piece of communication has ever worked on you, it'll likely work on others. So don't hesitate to copy the skeleton of the structure you've found. It will become original in the process of adding your specific set of information, which inevitably forces the whole thing to morph into something new.
Even though I am nominally "a writer," I always find visualising a structure to be helpful. I suggest that you will too. Below is a visualisation that I recently used for one of Wordience's clients.
There were a couple of versions before this, naturally. If you look closely at the image, you'll see the pencil marks. Ink only appeared after a few rounds of pencilling and erasing initial ideas.
The point here is to give yourself a bird's eye view of the shape of your final product. And if it seems about 80% right (Pareto again!) then stick with it and start drafting. You can shuffle things around later.
4. Stuff the turkey
Now it's really time to start adding your information in. Notice that till now, "writing" has been a minimal part of the process. It's a truism that "good writing is good thinking," and that's what the real focus has been up to this point.
So. Now the stuffing.
Make sure that you have at least some content for every empty section of your structure, no matter how sketchy that content is. If in later drafts the sketchiness persists, that's probably a sign that you can either eliminate that section or combine it with something else.
Be aware of your intuition, your hunches. As you work on your material, your unconscious will occasionally nudge you to move one thing here, another thing there. Honour these hunches, and just do it. You can always undo it if it doesn't work. The thing is, though, that hunches are often where the gold lies hidden.
5. Phone a friend. Phone two friends.
Once you've settled on a first draft of your structure and content, run it past someone from outside your target audience and someone from inside it. The outsider will give you a sense of whether it hangs together, the insider will let you know what they think is missing.
Not everyone's opinion will be valid, but it will be worth hearing. You'll either find out that you're on the right track, or you'll get some valuable course correction.
Use this feedback to revise your structure where necessary or where mandated. Above all, honour your reader, and make sure that the final flow will make sense to them.
6. Refine your writing.
After "good writing is good thinking" comes "writing is editing" as a reliable truism. So now would be the time to apply that nugget of wisdom, and start earnestly editing everything in your brochure. Get ready to cut, cut, cut. (No doubt I should take my own medicine and reduce this article substantially. No doubt I will!)
With your structure firmly in place, you should find it easier to create or find missing content. Importantly, you should also find it easier to edit the entire document because it should now be clear how each separate section stands in relation to everything else.
This is not to say you now have a finished product, but you'll be close to it. Closer than you thought you might have been when you started. Close enough to feel that you now know how to write this thing that you weren't so sure of before.
Which -- as you know, gentle reader -- was the whole point of this post.