- Identify the three stages of writing
- Explain the importance of having a clear purpose
- Explore how to analyze your audience
- Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different communication channels
To write successfully, you need to pre-write, think, research, plan, organize, draft, revise, rethink, analyze and brainstorm. Why is it important to think of writing as more than just the act of physically writing out words? Because often when people say that they’re “bad at writing,” they actually just need to make a few adjustments to just one of the phases of the writing process. The more you understand your writing process, the more control you have over it.
The writing process is made up of three main parts as illustrated in Figure 2.1.
Pre-writing: In the prewriting stage, you might read an assignment prompt, research, make an outline, sketch some ideas, brainstorm, doodle, jot down notes or even just think about your writing topic.
Writing: In the writing or drafting stage, you write down words. Your writing task will determine how you write. Some people write long or important documents by composing them in a notebook and then typing out the final product. Some write in one long paragraph and then break it up in the revision stage.
Revision: After you’ve finished writing, it’s time to rethink your piece. Many students think that revising is just making grammatical changes, but it’s a lot more than that. Expert writers often spend most of their composition time on revision. They may rethink their strategy, try a new outline, show their work to a colleague to get feedback, read their work out loud to see where it sounds choppy or simply put the work away for a few hours so that they can come back to it with a fresh perspective.
It’s important to note that your writing process won’t be a straight line. Expert writers switch between different modes. For example, you might realize that you need more research and go back to the pre-writing process. You might revise and write as you go. You might show a draft to a colleague or friend and decide to reorganize the entire work based on their feedback. Sometimes, this back-and-forth feels frustrating to new writers, but it’s a normal part of the writing process.
Here are some ideas to switch up your writing process if you’re getting stuck. They can be used both in school and in the workplace.
- Read the assignment prompt, then quickly write down 5 things you’ll need to do to be successful in the assignment. Using this list and the assignment prompt, create a timeline for finishing the assignment. For example, if you’re being graded on using primary and secondary research, you’ll want to make time to research, analyze your sources and add your citations.
- Go for a walk (or do some exercise) and think about your writing task. Sometimes moving your body helps you do brainstorming.
- Create an outline for your work.
- Use brainstorming (mind mapping, bubble maps, etc).
- Try illustrating your project visually. Connect ideas and thoughts with lines.
- Read a similar document to get ideas.
- Talk about your writing task with a friend.
- Turn off the screen of your computer and try writing your document. This will help you get your thoughts down without worrying about editing.
- Use the voice recorder in your phone to record yourself describing what you want to write about as if to a friend.
- Try free-writing. Write the phrase “What I want my reader to know is…” or “The most surprising thing about my research is…” Then, set a timer for 5 minutes and write about this topic. Don’t stop writing. Ignore all grammar and spelling errors. See how much you can write.
- Schedule a time each day to write and put it in your calendar.
- Try the Pomodoro Technique, where you work intensely for 25 minutes then take a 5-minute break.
- Read your work out loud. The ear is a better editor than the eye.
- Leave your work overnight so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
- Describe your work to a trusted friend or family member and encourage them to ask you questions.
- Compare your work to the assignment prompt or rubric. Read a criteria/rubric point then go to your work and underline where in the work you met the criteria.
- If your writing uses sources, print your work out and highlight every time you use a source. If your writing has no highlighted parts, you might want to add sources. If your writing is mostly highlighted, you might want to do more analysis of the sources.
The Writing Process In the Workplace
Students are often surprised to learn how much time professional writers devote to pre-writing and editing. In fact, a study conducted by a Toronto consulting firm found that writers in the workplace spend 40% of their time pre-writing or planning, 30% of their time revising and only 20% of their time writing. In contrast, some studies have found that students only spend 3-5% of their composition time revising.
In the workplace, you will vary your writing process depending on several factors, including:
- The importance of the writing task
- Your deadline
- The deliverable
- Your own writing process
- The culture of your workplace
- How much collaboration is required
A Note on Collaboration
Much of the writing that you’ll be doing in the workplace will involve collaborating with others. To do so effectively, you will have to respect other people’s writing processes and listen carefully to your collaborators. Different cultures also have different collaboration practices. For example, if your project impacts Indigenous People, you would want to involve many different people from the impacted community, especially Elders. If you’re not Indigenous, you might begin the project by taking time to listen, ask questions, and build trust. When done well, collaboration will make your work stronger. This quote from settler scholar Sophie McCall shows that collaboration doesn’t just have to be about ensuring that everyone agrees:
“Collaboration does not have to aim for a seamless platform of agreement; indeed, collaboration can embrace differences and acknowledge conflict. We came to think of our process as one of working across differences of experience, profession, background and interest.” – Sophie McCall on working with Metis artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle (as quoted in Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by And About Indigenous Peoples by Gregory Younging)
Planning Your Message
Sometimes, new communicators will want to start the writing process by deciding what product they want to create. For example, they might want to create an Instagram account to promote the company. If you don’t analyze your context, audience, message and purpose, you could end up choosing the wrong product. Preparation for the writing process involves purpose, research and investigation, reading and analyzing, and adaptation.
To prepare effectively, you should undertake the following steps.
1. Determine the Message’s Purpose
While you may be free to create documents that represent yourself or your organization, your employer will often have direct input into their purpose. All acts of communication have general and specific purposes, and the degree to which you can identify these purposes will influence how effective your writing is. General purposes involve the overall goal of the communication interaction: to inform, persuade, entertain, facilitate interaction, or motivate a reader. The general purpose influences the presentation and expectation for feedback. In an informative message, the most common type of writing in business, you will need to cover several predictable elements:
- Why (optional)
Some elements may receive more attention than others, and they do not necessarily have to be addressed in the order you see here. Depending on the nature of your project, as a writer, you will have a degree of input over how you organize them. Note that the last item, Why, is designated as optional. This is because business writing sometimes needs to report facts and data objectively, without making any interpretation or pointing to any cause-effect relationship. In other business situations, of course, identifying why something happened or why a certain decision is advantageous will be the essence of the communication. In addition to its general purpose (e.g., to inform, persuade, entertain, or motivate), every piece of writing also has at least one specific purpose, which is the intended outcome; the result that will happen once your written communication has been read.
2. Analyze your Audience
The audience of any piece of writing is the intended or potential reader or readers. This should be the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document. You “adapt” your writing to meet the needs, interests, and background of the readers who will be reading your writing. The principle seems absurdly simple and obvious. It’s much the same as telling someone, “Talk so the person in front of you can understand what you’re saying.” Do we need a course in that? Doesn’t seem like it. But, in fact, lack of audience analysis and adaptation is one of the root causes of most of the problems you find in business documents.
Audiences, regardless of category, must also be analyzed in terms of characteristics such as the following:
- Background knowledge, experience, and training: One of your most important concerns is just how much knowledge, experience, or training you can expect in your readers. Often, business communicators are asked to be clear, but what’s clear to you might not be clear to someone else. For example, imagine that you’re a software developer who’s developing an app for a client. Unfortunately, your code had a number of bugs, which put you behind schedule. If you give a highly technical explanation of why the bugs occurred, you will likely confuse your client. If you simply say “we ran into some bugs,” your client might not be satisfied with the explanation. Your job would be to figure out how much technical knowledge your audience has, then find a way to communicate the problem clearly.
- Needs and interests: To plan your document, you need to know what your audience is going to expect from that document. Imagine how readers will want to use your document and what will they demand from it. For example, imagine you are writing a manual on how to use a new smartphone. What are your readers going to expect to find in it? Will they expect it to be in print or will they look for the information online? Would they rather watch a series of Youtube videos?
- Different cultures: If you write for an international audience, be aware that formats for indicating time and dates, monetary amounts, and numerical amounts vary across the globe. Also, be aware that humour and figurative language (as in “hit a home run”) are not likely to be understood outside of your own culture.
- Other demographic characteristics: There are many other characteristics about your readers that might have an influence on how you should design and write your document, for example, age groups, type of residence, area of residence, gender, political preferences, and so on.
In the workplace, communicators analyze their audience in a number of ways. If your audience is specific (for example, if you’re writing a report to a particular person), you may draw on past experience, ask a colleague, Google the person or even contact them to ask how they would best like the information. If you’re communicating to a large group, you might use analytics, do user testing or run a focus group. Unless your project is important, you may not have time to undertake sophisticated audience analysis. In this case, you should follow the most important maxim of workplace communication: don’t waste people’s time. In general, clear, plain language that is clearly arranged will please most audiences. We’ll talk more about Plain Language in the next chapter.
3. Adapt Your Message
Let’s say you’ve analyzed your audience until you know them better than you know yourself. What good is it? How do you use this information? You can use this information to determine how much information to include or omit from your document, and whether or not it is appropriate to use technical language. For example, if your readers are specialists, you do not need to add as much background information as you would for a non-technical audience. Audience analysis also determines your level of formality. If you are writing to a colleague in another branch, you will probably use a different level of formality compared to when writing a proposal to a potential client.
Analyzing your audience also helps you to determine your primary and secondary audience. Your primary audience is your intended audience; it is the person or people you have in mind when you decide to communicate something. When analyzing your audience you must also be aware of your secondary audience. These are other people you could reasonably expect to come in contact with your message. For example, you might send an email to a customer, who, in this case, is your primary audience, and copy your boss, who would be your secondary audience. If you are responding to the customer’s complaint and your boss is copied on the message, you might include some background information if you boss is not familiar with the situation.
4. Choose Your Medium/Product
Purpose is closely associated with channel. We need to consider the purpose when choosing a channel. From source to receiver, message to channel, feedback to context, environment, and interference, all eight components play a role in the dynamic process. While writing often focuses on an understanding of the receiver (as we’ve discussed) and defining the purpose of the message, the channel—or the “how” in the communication process—deserves special mention.
When is it appropriate to send an instant message or text message versus a conventional email? What is the difference between a letter and a memo? Between a report and a proposal? Writing itself is the communication medium, but each of these specific channels has its own strengths, weaknesses, and understood expectations that are summarized in Figure 2.2.
|Channel||Strengths||Weakness||Expectations||When to Choose|
|Instant message or text message||
Figure 2.2 | Communication Channels
Our discussion of communication channels would not be complete without mentioning the issues of privacy and security in electronic communications. Many companies monitor their employees’ electronic communications or Internet use. When you call and leave a voice message for a friend or colleague at work, do you know where your message is stored? It is always wise to consider that any time you send an IM, text, or e-mail or leave a voice message, your message is stored on more than one server, and it can be forwarded to persons other than the intended receiver or can be stored for later retrieval by people for whom your message was not initially intended. Are you ready for your message to be broadcast to the world? Do your words represent you and your business in a positive light? By choosing the correct channel for a message, you can save yourself many headaches and increase the likelihood that your writing will be read, understood, and acted upon in the manner you intended.
In terms of writing preparation, you should review any electronic communication before you send it. Spelling and grammatical errors will negatively impact your credibility. With written documents, we often take time and care to get it right the first time, but the speed of instant messaging, text messaging, or emailing often deletes this important review cycle of written works. Just because the document you prepare in a text message is only one sentence long doesn’t mean it can’t be misunderstood or expose you to liability. Take time when preparing your written messages, regardless of their intended presentation, and review your work before you click “send.”
The writing process involves pre-writing, writing and reviewing. When planning your message, it is important to determine the purpose of your message and think about the needs of your audience. Once you have a good understanding of your audience, think about how to create a message to fit that audience’s needs. Finally, choose the most effective channel for your document and be sure to consider the possible ramifications of what you have written before you send it.
End of Chapter Activities
2a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
2b. Discussion Questions
- How much time do you send on prewriting, writing and revising your work?
- Make a list of the written communication that you read, skim, or produce in one day.
- Which communication channel do you most use and why?
2c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Anita is in the final year of her post-graduate degree program and needs to make a decision about her internship. For the last year, she has been working in a cafe in her neighbourhood. She hopes that she will be able to do her internship at the cafe. Recently the shift supervisor quit and moved to another city, and the cafe owner told Anita that she would be perfect for the position because of her great work ethic.
Anita meets with her internship supervisor to discuss her plans. Her supervisor is unwilling to sign off on her internship at the cafe because even though it would be a supervisory position, it would not be in her field. He suggests that she finds another job for her internship. Anita is disappointed. She will have to quit her current job and start the job search process again.
She needs to let her manager know that she will not be able to accept the supervisor position, and it is very likely that she will have to quit. Her manager prefers to communicate through text messages, but Anita wonders if a text message would be appropriate in this situation. She learned about choosing the correct medium in her business communication class.
Which medium should Anita choose to convey this message and why?
2d. Summary Writing
Watch this TED Talk on How to Have Better Conversations. Write a summary and evaluate how the speaker presented her topic. What do you think of her topic?
This chapter contains content from Business Communication For Everyone (c) 2019 by Arley Cruthers and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, Introduction to Professional Communications is (c) 2018 by Melissa Ashman and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license and Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative.
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