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5 writing tips from a grade-school cafeteria
Last week marked my son’s last day of kindergarten. I had lunch with him for the last time of the school year (something I’ve made an effort to do on a regular basis since last August, when I first came up with this post idea).
In his cafeteria, there’s a random banner about The Writing Process. I’m not sure of the banner’s origin, and I’m not sure in which grade they start teaching this stuff (not kindergarten), but I know its writing advice we could all use.
I’ve added a few additional thoughts to the outline from the banner.
• Brainstorm ideas. Grab a piece of paper, head to the white board or get out your iPad, and start getting all your ideas out of your head and into a more manageable format.
• Organize, decide on text structure. What format will your piece be? How long? Will you have sidebars, pull quotes, or infographics to break up the text? Each format has its own flow and requirements—thinking about the end before you begin is a good idea.
• Story maps, webs, lists. This is all about the flow of your ideas. How will you present the start, middle, and end of your information? What headings or subheadings will you use along the way? Think of your writing as a GPS system—what cues will you give readers along the way so they will know where they are, and will have a good idea about where you’re taking them.
• Create a rough draft. You know your topic. You have an idea about how you want the information to flow—now you just need to get it written. Resist the temptation to revise and edit as you go, just get it all down there for now. If you hit a spot you’re not sure about, just make a note like [THIS WOULD BE A GOOD PLACE FOR A STAT ON X] and keep writing. The goal is to get all the text down. If you stop during the process, it will take you much longer.
• Make changes to improve written work. If you were successful in step No. 2, you’ll now have to go through and rewrite sections. I usually read the article and see where I have gaps or need to clarify certain points. Sometimes I’ll read it out loud.
• Add/delete words, ideas, or details. When revising, I always return to the timeless Elements of Style advice, “Omit Needless Words.” What can you take out without changing the flow or meaning of your writing? Take it out. Less is more.
Notice “editing” follows “revisions”? I’ve always thought of edit/revise as one step, but it makes sense to edit your final draft, not things you may end up cutting during the revision process. Don’t worry about editing until your final draft.
Proofread to ensure the correct:
o Spelling. Don’t trust spell-check. If you’re not sure, look it up. (You know, in a dictionary.)
o Grammar. This one is difficult if you aren’t a grammar whiz. If you’re not, have someone else take a look.
o Capitalizations. This one is really geared toward elementary school pupils, but yes, you should capitalize letters at the beginning of sentences.
o Punctuation. Again, geared toward children, but make sure you’re not using commas where there should be periods—or dashes where there should be semicolons.
• Final draft. If you follow steps one through four, you should just get here. Any great writer will tell you there’s no such thing as a final draft, you can always improve it, but at some point (usually a deadline), you’ll need to let it go.
• Share. I’m sure this banner is at least five years old. Think of how different the meaning of “share” is today. In elementary school, they’re suggesting you share your writing with the audience. This is the event that signals completion of the writing process. Outside of elementary school, in the world where we work, it’s still the same. The final thing you do in the writing process is share it.
Can you follow this process start to finish when you’re on deadline and want to get a blog post out before lunch? Probably not. Few of us have enough time to plan and construct words the way we’d like to (or the way we did when we were in school).
As a perfect example, I didn’t follow this process for the post you’re reading. Would the post have been better if I had? Maybe. Could this process help you write better white papers, press releases, and other marketing content? I think so. Could it help you write better love letters? Maybe not.
A version of this story originally appeared on the blog Journalistics