As writing instructors are fond of saying, writing is nature’s way
of letting you know how unclear your thinking is. You thought you
knew exactly what you wanted to say. It made such perfect sense
inside your head. But when you began trying to put your thoughts
into words and sentences . . . well, there was trouble in River
Experienced, competent writers tend to develop a systematic
approach to planning, drafting, and revising. If you haven’t
developed a method – or even if you have – the following
eight-point checklist might give you some ideas.
1. Identify your purpose.
Why are you writing? If you can’t state your purpose in a single
sentence, you’re not ready to start drafting.
2. Organize your thoughts into coherent, logical order.
For longer documents, make an outline. What are your major points?
Mention them in an organizational statement in your opening.
Consider presenting them as bold headings in the body of your
text. In your closing, tell your readers what you want them to do.
3. Gather supporting information.
What facts and figures will support your argument? What examples
will illustrate your points? What evidence will make you seem
credible and believable?
4. Think about your reader.
Get outside your head. Set aside all the information you’ve
been thinking about and ask yourself what the reader cares about.
What does your reader need to know to (a) understand what you’re
saying, (b) accept your conclusions, and (c) take the desired
action? Your success depends on recognizing your reader’s point of
5. Develop a persuasive strategy.
Is your reader sympathetic or hostile to your argument? If
sympathetic, state your conclusion first, then your reasons or
evidence. If hostile, offer your evidence first, then your
conclusion. If your reader is interested in your topic, provide
more detail. If you’re reader doesn’t give a hoot, offer less. And
don’t forget to ask that basic and obvious question: Would it
better to talk than write? Consider the limitations and riskiness
of the written word.
6. Write your first draft.
Try not to edit and revise as you go. At least keep it to a
minimum. As Ernest Hemingway observed, “The only thing that
matters about your first draft is that you finish it.” If new
ideas and strategies occur to you as you put your thoughts into
words, let them in for now. You can always delete them later.
When possible, allow time to pass before revising. Then check your
organization by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Add
power to your prose by eliminating wordiness and extraneous
elements. As Stephen King observes in On Writing, A Memoir of
the Craft, “2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%.”
Hurried writing, unthinking responses, and rushed production
account for many missteps and errors in today’s fast-paced
communication. Pause before sending. Read over what you’ve
written. Always use spellcheck. Pay attention to those squiggly
red and green lines. For longer documents, make multiple passes,
first looking for big things like consistency in headings, and
last looking for little things like missing commas.
Now that you have a method, can you feel the power?
See related column: Editing checklist