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Three stages of writing

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B.S. WARRIER

For technical writing to be effective, you have to get your message across. And that, in turn, means proper planning.

“Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.”

— Niels Bohr

Writing is often divided into three stages: prewriting, writing and rewriting.

Prewriting

At this stage, decide the purpose of writing a document. Fix the objectives, gather data and find out the type of audience (readers).

Plan the writing. Decide what portions of the data gathered have to be used.

You may have to adopt diverse strategies for effective prewriting. The strategies may vary with the situation. While gathering data, keep in mind the “six honest serving men:” who, what, why, when, where and how.

You may have discussions with the people in the organisation to decide the content. A brainstorming session may help. Prepare an outline, discuss it further and modify it using the feedback.

Prewriting is sometimes called invention. Inventing in this context implies finding an idea or argument to which you had been exposed, but which does not easily spring to your mind. In other words, you should apply your mind with concentration to crystallise what you should present in the document.

Accuracy, relevance and significance of the matter should be kept in mind during the process.

If you intend to prepare a thesis based on experimental research, you will divide the document into four convenient parts — problem, method, findings and discussion. The results should provide accurate information. Your experiments should be repeatable.

Decide the type of illustrations and graphics. If you feel that storyboarding will be of help, use the technique. Storyboarding involves sketching each page of your document to help visualise its final form. This will be of significant help in creating web content.

Writing

Start writing the document keeping in mind the objectives as well as clarity, conciseness, accuracy, logic, sequence, organisation, ethics and graphics. Although you know where you are heading towards, the reader has access only to the lines that he is reading at a particular moment. It is your duty to lead him to useful destinations through easy-to-travel paths and fulfilling his expectations. As you proceed, organise your train of thoughts wisely. Though you have planned your matter during the prewriting stage, it is a good idea to go on planning throughout the writing process. Perhaps, a better idea that will improve the text or the graphics may strike you. Such ideas often come up as you write. The original plan need not be a straightjacket.

As regards style, we may remember what Bill Stewart, an American journalist, once wrote: “For something simple, 10th grade language structures will do, but if it’s really hairy stuff, back down to 8th grade or so. Think about what your audience knows and doesn’t know, and what they want and don’t want. Express things in terms of what they know and want, not what you know.”

One significant aspect that is rarely mentioned is the need for developing typing skills. It is a great pity that many experts in professions use the computer as novices, using only two fingers, though God has generously given them 10. Though typing speed can never match the speed of thought, a reasonable speed of typing will prove to be a great advantage when you prepare documents. A few hours spent on developing typing speed and accuracy will help you greatly during several years of your career. The need for depending on others even for typing a quick mail or making a correction in a document can prove to be a serious handicap on occasions.

Those who use computers for writing should make it a habit to save the document frequently and keep back-up copies, lest they should be left with nothing in the event of computer failure.

Rewriting

You have put your ideas on paper or in the computer file. But they may not be in the best form possible. Your option is to revise and improve it. Any draft permits revision for improvement. This is an essential process in any writing, and not something that may be done, only if you have time for it. Perfection is something you cannot attain, but certainly something you can attempt. Not only correction of errors, but upgrading the document in content, style, and presentation, with perfection in mind. Filling gaps in information, removing redundant words or expressions, replacing a long word with a short one, simplifying sentence structure, providing better graphics, rearranging paragraphs for better logic, writing sub-titles and highlighting for emphasis are elements of revision. Documents such as a user guide that are to be read by thousands of non-specialists may have to undergo revision several times.

Depending on the nature of the document, you may make changes. Add an FAQ for pre-empting readers’ queries. Introduce bullets or numbers replacing long text that carries several related points. Expand and explain rare abbreviations, unavoidable jargon and acronyms as they appear first. Remove obscure words and expressions that your readers may find difficult. Remove offensive phrases, if any, and soften the tone, ensuring enjoyable communication. Confirm precision in visuals. Check and recheck formulae and numbers to make the final document free from errors. Split sentences and paragraphs that are too long. Proofread. Provide more of white space, if necessary. In brief, make the document more reader-friendly. However, you should remember that in any technical writing, content is more important than form.

You may have to stand in the reader’s shoes and try to see if you will get the message, even if you had no knowledge on the topic. A good idea is to field-test the document. You may give it to a few readers of the type targeted by you. Ask for their candid comments. Let them tell you the difficulties they encountered while reading. Approach their remarks with a positive frame of mind and improve the document to meet its objectives.

Guidanceplus archives: http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/nic/0051

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