Part 3: Planning messages
If you think that a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor on the computer screen is a scary sight, you are not alone. Many writers, students, and employees find that beginning to write can be intimidating. When faced with a blank page, however, experienced writers remind themselves that writing, like other everyday activities, is a process. Every process, from writing to cooking, bike riding, and learning to use a new cell phone, will get significantly easier with practice.
Just as you need a recipe, ingredients, and proper tools to cook a delicious meal, you also need a plan, resources, and adequate time to create a good business message. In other words, writing is a process that requires following steps and using strategies to accomplish your goals.
Let’s begin by thinking about your current writing process.
- Describe your writing process. How do you tackle writing tasks?
- What do you think the role of your writing teacher should be?
- Describe a time when you wrote something you’re proud of. How did you get started? What conditions did you write under? Did you revise?
- How do you normally complete an assignment? Do you feel that this method is successful?
- If you write in more than one language, do you use the same writing process for each language you write? How are your writing processes the same and different?
What role do emotions play in writing?
Because this is a business writing class, it might seem weird to talk about feelings. But how you feel about a writing task often determines how effectively you can complete it. For example, have you ever struggled to write an apology to someone you upset? Have you ever found yourself procrastinating to write an assignment you don’t really understand? Have you ever found that it’s easier for you to seem to write better in some classes more than others?
Emotions are the reason that sometimes you can write without thinking and sometimes you find yourself procrastinating, then staring at a blank screen, typing and deleting the same words over and over, feeling your writing becoming more awkward rather than less. That’s why simply acknowledging how you feel can help you avoid procrastination.
The first step is acknowledging how you feel, and the second step is figuring out why you feel that way. For example, some students have negative feelings about a writing assignment because they don’t like the teacher (or a teacher they had years ago), or they’ve had past struggles in a subject, or they don’t understand the point of the assignment, or they’re overwhelmed with other classes. Being able to identify why you’re feeling an emotion takes the power out of it. Sometimes you can even find a solution to make the writing task easier.
Here are some stories about how student writers changed their writing processes.
Whenever Raveena writes, she feels a little editor on her shoulder who’s always chiming in correcting her grammar and telling her that her sentences are awkward and sloppy. She spends so much time editing while she writes that she loses her train of thought and has trouble just letting her thoughts flow. Writing a single page takes her hours.
Raveena’s instructor asked if she had always written this way. Raveena said she used to write easily, but during her first semester of university she had a couple of instructors who were tough graders. Whenever she would write, she would imagine her instructors criticizing her. Raveena’s instructor suggested two solutions:
1) She should pretend to write to someone she likes. It’s easier to write to a friendly reader than a hostile one. Raveena imagined writing to her favourite cousin and writing got a little easier.
2) She asked Raveena to put a piece of paper over her laptop screen or turn the screen’s brightness to the lowest setting, then type out her thoughts. At first, Raveena found this very uncomfortable. When she turned her screen back on, she saw a jumble of text. But Raveena soon discovered that she had quickly written 500 words, which would have taken her hours under her old method. Raveena then used her excellent editing skills to shape what she had written.
Kai prided themself on being able to write their essays the night before. They would drink some energy drinks and buy their favourite snacks and write for hours. They rarely revised their work. This technique worked well in high school, but when they got to university their grades started slipping. Their instructors noted that they had great ideas, but many were not well-organized or were incomplete.
Kai’s instructor asked the class to bring a draft for a peer workshop. Kai told their instructor that they wouldn’t be able to write a draft, since they could only write well the night before the assignment was due. Kai’s instructor asked them what they liked about writing at night. Kai said that they liked how quiet it was in the house at 3 a.m. and how the pressure made them focus. Kai’s instructor asked them to try to replicate the same environment (dark room, snacks, drinks etc.), set a timer for 2 hours and see how much they could write. Kai was able to write a rough draft of their assignment, though they didn’t feel the “writing magic” in the same way.
During the workshop, Kai’s classmates offered several useful suggestions for improvement, but they were worried about overthinking things and ruining them by doing too much revision. Kai’s instructor told them to save the rough draft as a different file. If they didn’t like the revisions, they could go back to the previous draft. Kai tried a number of revision techniques and ended up with a much stronger assignment. Slowly, they used more and more revision techniques in their other assignments. The result: higher grades and more sleep.
If your writing process is working for you, then there’s no need to change it. But if the way you write frustrates you, consider making some changes. You might also consider changing your writing process for certain writing tasks, such as important assignments.
What is effective writing?
Effective writing can be simply described as good ideas that are expressed and arranged in a way your audience understands. Although many more pre-writing strategies exist, this chapter covers six: using experience and observations, freewriting, asking questions, brainstorming, idea mapping, and searching the internet. Using the strategies in this chapter can help you overcome the fear of the blank page and confidently begin the writing process.
Pre-writing is the stage of the writing process during which you transfer your abstract thoughts into more concrete ideas in ink on paper (or in type on a computer screen). Although pre-writing techniques can be helpful in all stages of the writing process, the following six strategies are best used when initially deciding on a topic:
- Using experience and observations
- Asking questions
- Idea mapping
- Searching the internet
In addition to understanding that writing is a process, writers also understand that choosing a good general topic for an assignment is an essential step. Sometimes your instructor will give you an idea to begin an assignment, and other times your instructor will ask you to come up with a topic on your own. A good topic not only covers what an assignment will be about but also fits the assignment’s purpose.
The first important step is for you to tell yourself why you are writing (to inform, to explain, or some other purpose) and for whom you are writing. Write your purpose and your audience on your own sheet of paper.
Using experience and observations
When selecting a topic, you may also want to consider something that interests you or something based on your own life and personal experiences. Even everyday observations can lead to interesting topics. After writers think about their experiences and observations, they often take notes on paper to better develop their thoughts. These notes help writers discover what they have to say about their topic.
Freewriting is an exercise in which you write freely about any topic for a set amount of time (usually three to five minutes). During the time limit, you may jot down any thoughts that come to your mind. Try not to worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead, write as quickly as you can without stopping. If you get stuck, just copy the same word or phrase over and over until you come up with a new thought.
Writing often comes easier when you have a personal connection with the topic you have chosen. Remember, to generate ideas in your freewriting, you may also think about readings that you have enjoyed or that have challenged your thinking. Doing this may lead your thoughts in interesting directions.
Quickly recording your thoughts on paper will help you discover what you have to say about a topic. When writing quickly, try not to doubt or question your ideas. Allow yourself to write freely and without being self-conscious. Once you start writing with few limitations, you may find you have more to say than you first realized. Your flow of thoughts can lead you to discover even more ideas about the topic. Freewriting may even lead you to discover another topic that excites you even more.
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? In everyday situations, you pose these kinds of questions to get more information. Who will be my partner for the project? When is the next meeting? Why is my car making that odd noise?
You seek the answers to these questions to gain knowledge, to better understand your daily experiences, and to plan for the future. Asking these types of questions will also help you with the writing process. As you choose your topic, answering these questions can help you revisit the ideas you already have and generate new ways to think about your topic. You may also discover aspects of the topic that are unfamiliar to you and that you would like to learn more about. All these idea-gathering techniques will help you plan for future work on your assignment.
Pre-writing is very purpose driven; it does not follow a set of hard-and-fast rules. The purpose of pre-writing is to find and explore ideas so that you will be prepared to write. A pre-writing technique like asking questions can help you both find a topic and explore it. The key to effective pre-writing is to use the techniques that work best for your thinking process. Freewriting may not seem to fit your thinking process, but keep an open mind. It may work better than you think.
Brainstorming is similar to list making. You can make a list on your own or in a group with your classmates. Start with a blank sheet of paper (or a blank computer document) and write your general topic across the top. Underneath your topic, make a list of more specific ideas. Think of your general topic as a broad category and the list items as things that fit in that category. Often you will find that one item can lead to the next, creating a flow of ideas that can help you narrow your focus to a more specific paper topic.
Idea mapping allows you to visualize your ideas on paper using circles, lines, and arrows. This technique is also known as clustering because ideas are broken down and clustered or grouped together. Many writers like this method because the shapes show how the ideas relate or connect, and writers can find a focused topic from the connections mapped. Using idea mapping, you might discover interesting connections between topics that you had not thought of before.
To create an idea map, start with your general topic in a circle in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Then write specific ideas around it and use lines or arrows to connect them together. Add and cluster as many ideas as you can think of.
Searching the internet
Using search engines on the internet are good ways to see what kinds of websites are available on your topic. Writers use search engines not only to understand more about the topic’s specific issues but also to get better acquainted with their audience. Be choosy about the websites you use. Make sure they are reliable sources for the kind of information you seek.
When you search the internet, type some key words from your broad topic or words from your narrowed focus into your browser’s search engine (many good general and specialized search engines are available for you to try). Then look over the results for relevant and interesting articles.
Results from an internet search show who is talking about the topic, how the topic is being discussed, and what specific points are currently being discussed about the topic. If the search engine results are not what you are looking for, revise your key words and search again. Some search engines also offer suggestions for related searches that may give you better results.
Not all the results online search engines return will be useful or reliable. Give careful consideration to the reliability of an online source before selecting a topic based on it. Remember that factual information can be verified in other sources, both online and in print. If you have doubts about any information you find, either do not use it or identify it as potentially unreliable.
Want to switch up your writing process?
Here are some ideas if you’re getting stuck. They can be used both in school and in the workplace.
Here are some simple ways to change your writing process. Pick a few and try them.
- 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.
- Represent your writing task visually. Sometimes creating a comic strip or series of doodles helps you to figure out where to start.
- 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.
- Write an imaginary conversation between your sources. How would they respond to each other?
- 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 to Pomodoro Technique, where you work intensely for 25 minutes then take a 5 minute break.
- Use website blocking software like Freedom, FocusBooster or StayFocusd to block your internet use for a few hours so you can concentrate.
- 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.
- Print your work out and cut it up so that each paragraph is on its own piece of paper. Try reorganizing your paragraphs. Does another order work better?
- 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.
- Underline the main point of each paragraph. If you can’t point out what the point of the paragraph is, you may need to rethink it. If your paragraph has multiple points, you may need to break it up.
- Show your work to your teacher, a colleague or friend and ask them what they think the goal of the assignment is.