backStop document reviews from creating monsters

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By Lynne Laracy

I received this plea for help from a participant in one of my business writing workshops:

How do you prevent a document ending up like a Frankenstein of sorts, with extras bolted on everywhere as it goes through review by senior staff and several draft iterations?

It’s a story I hear every day, where writers find their work almost unrecognisable by the end of the reviewing process. Organisational documents that require input or review from others can end up looking like a creature stitched together, without coherence and certainly without beauty!

Here’s my advice.

Take control from the start
Your first defence is to try to get a good brief. Try to ensure that anyone who will be reviewing your document gives you sufficient input before you start writing. Learn to question your commissioning managers thoroughly. You need to be quick – as they often don’t have much time, focused in your questioning, and, at times, politely insistent so you get the answers you need.

Most of all, you need to agree with your manager what the purpose and scope of the document are. Often they don’t know what they want until they see what they don’t want – after you’ve slaved over it for days!

Don’t start writing if you don’t know exactly what is needed.

Harness their knowledge
Managers often know more about the end users, who are often the decision makers, than you do. Find out from them as much as you can about the intended readers and any politics that might surround a decision. Managers may be well aware that some things won’t fly – but if you don’t ask, they may forget to tell you. A lot of rewriting can happen because of that.

Keep them in the loop
Once you have a clear brief, consider creating a document outline that gives the purpose, scope and a high-level view of content – as a set of headings and subheadings. Discuss it with them so the framework is agreed before the writing starts. The more upfront discussion, the nearer the end product will be to what the reviewer wants.

 If things change as you write, let them know, so that your document stays fresh in their mind and they don’t get any surprises when it thuds on their desk.

Get it right the first time
The better your document is, the less likely it will be that reviewers start fiddling with it. If it’s sloppy, with typos and errors, or it’s poorly structured or poorly thought out, they will start rewriting. Make it a point of pride to get it as close to the final product as possible. Reviewers can add best value and are less likely to wield a savage red pen if they don’t have to clean up fundamental writing flaws.

See the finished product
Make sure you see final versions of everything you write. Respectfully but strongly stand up for your own point of view, if you think the document has lost its way. Be armed with good reasons and sound logic. Also take on board what they want and need so you get your next documents nearer the mark.

Work together
Discuss your writing with your managers when you are not on a deadline so that the reviewing process becomes a learning process, not a battle of wills. And if you have a reviewing manager who is very exacting, be glad. It will make you a better writer in the end.


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Comments (3)

Tom Spratt

Right on the money with "Get it right the first time" Lynne. There are people like me who get easily distracted (and a might frustrated) correcting others' typos instead of critiquing structure or content. Waste of time.

Stephanie Siegel

@ Tom Spratt I think you meant "a mite frustrated."

Lynne Laracy

Those darn homonyms. But I think @Tom Spratt speaks for all reviewers when he expresses how frustrated (more mightily than a mite, methinks!) he is by writers who leave it to reviewers to tidy up basic errors rather than letting them concentrate on substantive content. On the other side of the coin, reviewers also need to restrain themselves from focusing only on the mites and missing errors of logic or argument.

Tom Spratt

Thanks for the correction Stephanie........and you are right Lynne. Never thought of it that way but I'll take it.