The key to effective writing is to know what you’re trying to achieve at every step, and then balance your effort at each one. Knowing what you’re supposed to be doing all along the way will steadily improve your results. In the diagram above, there are four steps. Here’s what you should be doing in each one.
Prepare. Having everything ready to begin writing early in the process helps prevent things from going wrong later on. Here are some things to be concerned about at this stage:
- Do you have a clear idea of who your audience is and the goals for your writing? I not, it’s time to analyze these and write them down.
- Do you have enough material for the appropriate content length? If not, create a research plan and act on it. If there’s information missing, get it. Don’t wait until you really need it. You’ll then be in panic mode.
- Are you taking the most creative and effective approach to your project? Authors sometimes start writing, create something, then find that it doesn’t suit the original purpose. Sit back and think through your idea and other possible ways to present your message or story.
- Do you have a structure in mind? Have you created a detailed outline—a thorough description of what’s going to be in your final work and in what order.
What you should not be doing in this step is writing. Writing without having satisfactorily answered the above questions may be a waste of your time and effort.
Writing takes effort and concentration. So, by doing Step 1 effectively, you can begin to write freely, with no worries that you’ll have to stop to do something you should have done first.
The goal of this step to complete a first draft of your work. Never think that this is anything like what your finished product will be. This draft serves to get your ideas down on paper, and it’s likely full of flaws—from typos to poor flow in places to even sections in the wrong order. Not to worry. How long will this first draft take? It depends on how disciplined your writing schedule is and how long your work is. But, a caveat here: Don’t drag out this important process step. If you can’t get your first draft done in a matter of months, you may lose the thread of your writing.
Keep in mind that your first draft is not an end in itself. It’s simply the step that allows you to get your ideas down on paper so you can begin the editing step.
And please note that editing is not a single process. It’s likely that you’ll go through multiple edits and different kinds of edits, each one getting you closer to your finished product.
But here’s a gently warning. Working with an editor is likely to improve your work. But your editor may want to impose ideas (e.g., structure, wording) that are not your own. This may truly improve your work, but it can also make you feel that the document is no longer fully yours. So, while an effective editor may make suggestions, and since the work is ultimately yours, it’s up to you as to what to do with the suggestions.
When all the editing is finished, there’s one more step to assuring that your work represents you in the best possible light—proofreading. While this term technically applies to checking galley proofs before printing, it can still be applied to everyday needs. It’s that one last time that you get to read through your document, word-by-word, to assure that it’s 99% perfect. (It’s amazing how many times an author will look at a published document a year later and find those 1% errors.)
There’s no secret to effective writing. It’s a matter of following the above four steps—with discipline. You’ll find that the results are worth following this approach.
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