Is writing at work a challenge? You want to seem professional and competent but with so many other tasks competing for your attention, it’s hard to find the time to write well. And when you do get started, distractions and delays make it hard to finish. These 3 simple C’s will help you start quickly, stay on track, and finish faster. Who knows? You might even enjoy yourself.
First C: Context
Before even thinking about what you’re going to write, think about who you’re writing to:
Who Is Your Reader?
- What is their age, gender, experience, literacy, goals, skills…
- What’s important to them? What do they care about the most? (money, relationships, details…?)
- How interested are they in what you’re writing? Which parts will they be most interested in?
What Do They Know?
- What do they already know, need to know, and want to know?
- How far back should you start?
- What should you include? What can you leave out?
- What jargon and acronyms is it ok to use?
Why Will They Read Your Writing?
- Is it work-related or personal interest?
- To get information once, or to learn something deeply?
Where Will They Read It?
- In an office, at home, on the bus?
- Alone, or in a meeting?
- Are there distractions or interruptions?
How Will They Read It?
- All at once or a bit at a time?
- Will they be multitasking?
- Are they reading on paper or screen? Phone, tablet or large monitor?
- How much time will it take? How much time do they have?
How Will They Use What You Write?
- Will they read it once, or keep your document and it as a resource?
- Will they share it or copy it?
Why Are You Writing?
- What do you want to happen as a result of what you’re writing—do you want your reader to do or understand something? If so, what is it? Be precise.
- How will you know that you were successful?
Second C: Content
Once you know who you’re writing to and what’s important to them, it’s time to identify and assemble your content. First, make a list or mind map of the items you want to cover. Your list might include:
- Background information
- Who’s involved
- Why your reader should be interested
- The main content
- Your recommendations
- Summary or conclusion
- References, bibliography, endnotes
- Glossary, definitions
- Credits, acknowledgments
- Table of Contents
Don’t worry about writing yet. First, put your content in order.
6 Ways to Organize Content
1. Reader-Centric: What the reader wants to know first followed by what they want to know second, and so on. Example: You won the lottery! Here’s where you pick up the check…
Sentence Example Our company was the successful bidder. Your department is responsible for creating the project timeline. Project details will be delivered on Tuesday. Please have the timeline ready by Friday.
- Paragraph 1—What we will deliver
- Paragraph 2—How we will deliver it
- Paragraph 3—Budgets
- Paragraph 4—Deadlines
- Paragraph 5—Details
2. Order of Importance: Seen in instructions and reports. Can be order of importance according to the reader, organization, or topic (for example, a safety manual might be organized according to severity of danger).
Sentence Example Exit the burning building, then call 911. Clear crowds away from structures and emergency vehicles.
- Paragraph 1—Fiscal Outlook
- Paragraph 2—Sales Report
- Paragraph 3—Staff Training
3. From Already-Known to New Information: Often used in instructions, technical writing and persuasion.
Sentence Example Fingers have bones in them, called phalanges.
- Paragraph 1—History of the project
- Paragraph 2—What we learned so far
- Paragraph 3—New directions
- Paragraph 4—New engineering challenges
4. General to Specific: Often used when introducing new concepts or information. Gives the reader a sense of context. Executive summaries, wikis and manuals often use this.
Sentence Example Structural engineering is a field of engineering dealing with the analysis and design of structures that support or resist loads. Structural engineering is usually considered a specialty within civil engineering… (Wikipedia, 2014)
- Paragraph 1—Definition of structural engineering
- Paragraph 2—Structural engineering areas of concentration
- Paragraph 3—Types of structural failures
5. Alphabetical: Seen in dictionaries, indexes, glossaries and contact lists. Sometimes combined with other ways of organizing. A contact list, for example, may be alphabetical within each department, but the departments are organized by hierarchy.
Document Example: Company Directory
- Paragraph 1—President’s Office (A-Z)
- Paragraph 2—Administration (A-Z)
- Paragraph 3—Department A (A-Z)
6. Chronological: Often used in schedules, timelines, histories and event programs.
Now, Fill In The Sentences. After you’ve organized your content, list the items you need to include in each topic or section. Organize those items. Finally, it’s time to write the actual sentences.
Writing Tip: Writing is like making a cake—don’t worry about making it pretty until the end. Focus on creating a solid structure to support your content.
Third C: Clear & Concise
Our final C is actually two C’s. (No extra charge.) Now that you’ve organized your topics and filled in the sentences, it’s time to review your content. Read what you wrote and if possible, ask someone else to read it too. (Ideally, ask 3-5 people who are typical of your reader to read what you’ve written, and provide feedback.)
Is It Concise?
Does every word move the reader closer to your goal? Are there any words, sentences or sections you can cut?
- Can you move extra information to the back, as an appendix?
- Can you remove extra words? (adjectives, adverbs, meaningless phrases)
- Is anything repetitive or redundant?
- Can you replace phrases with single words? (“at this point in time”=“now”)
- Did you include unnecessary information?
Is It Clear?
- Can your reader understand what you mean, what you want, and what is expected of them?
- Does the content flow in a logical order?
- Did you use common words and active sentences?
- Is your call to action clear, with a defined deadline?
- Is the formatting clear?
- Is the document physically easy to read?
- Did you use a standard font like Arial, Helvetica or Times Roman? Is the text large enough for your reader?
- Did you use clear, legible headings and sub-headings to guide readers?
- Do illustrations have informative captions?
- Does your page numbering include total number of pages so the reader knows they have the entire document? (“Page X of Y”)
Bonus C: Correct
- Double-check your dates, facts and figures.
- Spell-check, then spell-check again.
- Read your document out loud, or have it read to you.
- Ask someone who is similar to your reader to review your document: do they understand it? Do they want to read it? Can they find the information your typical reader will look for?