The first draft of any communication you write is likely to be wordier than it needs to be. There will be ambiguity. There will also be typos and inconsistencies. This is normal. Even professional writers need to go back and refine their work multiple times to make it clear and concise. Revising written communication is like peeling the layers of an onion. You need to peel back the rougher outer layers to reach the smooth centre.
Ideally, allow time in the writing process to revise your work in 3 stages. Between each revision, put the document aside and come back to it later in the day, or the next day if possible. The longer the break, the more you will be able to see your work with fresh eyes. To allow for this important downtime between revisions, you will need to pace yourself. If your deadline is unrealistic, you may need to extend it.
In the first revision, focus on the big picture – don’t get distracted by the detail.
- Is the objective clear and at the beginning of the communication?
- Does the executive summary contain only high-level information?
- Does the content of each section match the heading?
- Does the information follow a logical flow?
- Does the communication contain just the right amount of detail?
- Are observations or findings separate from the causes and solutions?
- Are the recommendations clear and actionable?
- Does each paragraph have a clear topic sentence with one idea per paragraph?
- Is each paragraph around five lines?
Once you have checked the overall structure, focus on the sentence level.
- Are the headings informative and accurate?
- Do bulleted lists follow a consistent structure?
- Are sentences between 15 and 20 words on average?
- Are the sentences easy to understand on first reading?
- Does the communication contain 80% or more active voice?
- Is the communication written in plain English and free from buzzwords?
- Have you eliminated unnecessary repetition?
- Is the tone professional and appropriate?
- Is the language level appropriate for the audience?
At the final check, focus on the micro level.
- Are all names of people, organisations or brands correct?
- Are all acronyms correct and spelled out the first time they appear?
- Does the communication comply with the style and formatting requirements set out in your organisation’s writing style guide?
- Are there any typos or grammatical errors?
Reports and other documents will also benefit from a second pair of eyes to identify ambiguities or errors. Before releasing the communication, consider setting up a focus group with a cross-section of readers. This is especially important to test forms and procedures, or to receive general feedback on the communication’s style, tone and readability.
Taking this iterative approach to writing is essential to achieve the best results. Allowing even a small amount of time between revisions will not only lead to a better result, it will reduce your overall writing time. This is because you’ll be working more efficiently and systematically as you produce each draft.
If you have a habit of putting off writing to the last minute, or you continually work to unrealistic deadlines, you and your organisation will pay the price. Failure to revise properly could result in serious consequences for others, or costly or embarrassing errors that could damage your organisation’s reputation as well as your bottom line.