The Writing Process – Part 1 of 2

To prepare an effective document, you must follow a good writing process. The process starts before the document is written and continues after it is completed. The process also involves more than just the writer.

The writing process can be structured into these ten steps:

1. Plan: What is being written? Why are we writing it?
2. Investigate: Collect information and generate ideas.
3. Organize: Group your thoughts into a document outline.
4. Write: Create a draft of the document in the agreed format.
5. Review: Ask users to look at the draft document.
6. Test: Use the document to validate it is correct and complete.
7. Approve: Submit it for management review and approval.
8. Train: Ensure users are trained before issuing the document.
9. Issue: Make it available in the document control system.
10. Maintain: Revise the document to keep it valid and current.

Communication is a simple process. It requires a sender, a receiver, and a medium for carrying the message. However, successful communication is not always simple. To be successful, the receiver has to clearly understand the information being conveyed by the sender.

Begin by considering what message is to be communicated to the readers. The document must be clear on what the users must do to ensure the process is carried out well. Give them the information needed to perform their jobs in an efficient and quality manner.

To convey the message in the right way, you need to understand the intended audience for the document. What are their job duties and assumed knowledge? How will their skills and background affect the interpretation of the message?

The medium should be selected to clearly communicate your message. This article will focus on text documents. Other choices may be better for the message depending on the environment. For example, you could also use pictures, visual aids, posters, and videos.

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say. Sholem Asch (1880-1957), Novelist and Dramatist

Global Audience
The English language contains thousands of idioms (phrases not meant to be taken literally). We use them in our speech, so they may turn up in our documents. For example, “just as soon” should be “quickly” to avoid confusing readers of our documents in other countries.

The specialized or technical language of a trade or profession is called jargon. Be careful to use only commonly accepted terms. Your local jargon may be unknown to the rest of the world. For example, a “seamless” process could be called a “well-integrated” process.

Eliminate terms in global documents that are uniquely American. Use of a baseball reference, such as “touch base with”, should become “contact”.

Humor may be useful in advertising materials to gain the reader’s attention, but is seldom appropriate for other business documents. Plus, your intended humor may not work well in different cultures.

Most of the world is metric, so provide metric equivalents for the readers in other countries. For example, express dimensions in inches and centimeters.

We use a date format of mm/dd/yy. Other countries use formats of dd/mm/yy or yy/mm/dd. So, you may want to express the full date (February 14, 2013) to avoid confusion.

1. Plan
Writing a document requires planning, like any other important activity. It is essential to know why it is being written, who is going to write it, and how it will be written.

What is the primary reason for the document? If it is just to satisfy a request from your manager, then you may be writing something to please the boss, but readers may not use it.

If it is being written to address costly human errors, you will have to develop a technically accurate, understandable document that reduces or eliminates errors in a way that readers will want to use it.

It may be that different departments or business units perform the same or similar function in quite different ways. As a result, the document may be needed to standardize the process for more consistency across the groups.

If staff turnover is high, there will be a need to quickly train new workers on the process (and separately resolve the turnover issue). The document must present information for easy understanding and for use as a training tool.

Quality standards require certain procedures and some industry standards even require work instructions. The writer must be familiar with these requirements to ensure they are adequately addressed in the document.

Is it Really Needed?
Documents are not the best solution for every problem. Other approaches should be considered.

Any document depends on a certain level of reader knowledge. It can’t be expected to tell the user everything. Training fills the gap. If the process is not being performed correctly, the problem may be with the training.

If you are worried about someone falling down the stairs, it might be better to add a railing than to include a written caution to watch your step. It is often better to look for engineered solutions that replace the need for documents.

A clarified or expanded document may not resolve performance issues. Management supervision and coaching may be the best answer.

If written directions alone would suffice, libraries wouldn’t need to have the rest of the universities attached. Judith Martin, Miss Manners.

Who Will Write It?
Documents must be created by qualified writers. The author must understand the subject matter and be able to communicate the information to others. The process owner is ultimately responsible for the document and should assign someone to write it.

Using a committee of writers leads to inconsistency, redundancy, missing information, and takes longer to complete. If it is so complex that multiple writers are needed, then logically break it into several documents.

The author can either be a technical expert that has been trained to write, or a writer that has been trained on the subject matter.

If the subject is too difficult for the writer to learn in a reasonable period of time, then the expert should write the document. On the other hand, the expert may not have the necessary time or communication skills to write it.

How Will They Write It?
Provide the author with the necessary training to write the document. Training may cover the subject matter, writing process, and associated tools.

Define the writing process so the author understands how to best prepare the document and guide it through the organization for approval.

Describe the file management process to clearly indicate how it will be named, where the file will reside, and who will have authorized access.

Identify the review and approval steps required before the document can be issued. Ensure the writer (or document management system) keeps the approval evidence. Provide the writer with the appropriate computer support and a standard template for creating the desired type of document.

Writing a good document takes time. Make sure the author is given adequate time to prepare it on a reasonable schedule.

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Essayist, Lexicographer, and Poet

2. Investigate
After planning, the next step is to gather the necessary information to write the document. You begin by looking at the source documents, interviewing users, and observing the process.

New documents are usually based on related documents. Investigate these sources by examining the applicable policies, plans, procedures, instructions, specifications, forms, and training materials.

If a prior version of the document exists, it may not be totally correct. Be careful. Avoid perpetuating the same old mistakes.

Interview the Document Users
Much of the knowledge you need to write the document will be found in the minds of the users and technical experts. You must talk to them to gain this information. Start by considering the document reader (user) as your customer.

Your motto should be: “I write for the reader.”

Informal discussions with your friends may provide valuable process insights. However, don’t rely solely on this easy network of users. Talk to the people that can answer your questions.

Prepare a list of interview questions and take complete, accurate notes. Ask what they want to see in the document. Remember, they are your customers.

Observe the Activity
You may have trouble writing the document if you have never observed the process to be described. If possible, perform the activity yourself for a first-hand experience. Or, watch someone carry out the process using the current document, if it exists.

Ask the user to explain the steps and how exception cases are handled. See if any forms are completed and what records are captured. If the process cannot be demonstrated, such as an emergency process, conduct a walkthrough to simulate it as closely as possible.

Analyze the Activity and Critical Factors
As part of the investigation, analyze the process by breaking down the tasks into their basic elements.

People: Who are the players? What is their education, training, skills, and experience? Does the job require vision or hearing attributes?
Items: What is the type, condition, quantity, and preparation of the items they work on in the process?
Equipment: What equipment is used? What are its maintenance needs? What is its process capability?
Environment: What are the working conditions? What are the space, lighting, noise, dust, temperature and humidity requirements?
Documents: What input documents and forms are used in the work? Where do they originate?
Instructions: What process documents are followed to perform the work?

Another way to examine a process is with a process diagram, often called a “turtle” diagram, consisting of inputs, resources, methods, measures, and outputs:

  • Four questions about the process (the legs)
    • Resources: With what? Materials and equipment.
    • Resources: With who? People and skills.
    • Methods: How done? How controlled? Procedures and instructions.
    • Measures: What results? Performance indicators.
  • A question about the input (the head)
    • What should we receive? From whom and when?
  • A question about the output (the tail)
    • What should we deliver? To whom and when?

Note: Steps 4 through 10 of The Writing Process will be covered in our June 2013 newsletter.