Ask any writer how much time they actually spend writing and the answer may surprise you.
Good writers spend relatively little time actually writing. They spend an enormous amount of time planning, researching, and physically producing their documents (not to mention the â€˜busy workâ€™ of meetings and emails). Even if they are creating documents that re-use content from other sources, they still spend time locating and verifying that information.
Wouldnâ€™t it be great if your writers spent more time doing what they do best: writing? There are tools out there that can help. The following are just some ways that a good authoring tool can help.
Centralise content for re-use
Take the effort out of locating information. Having content in one place means that your writers can easily find content that has previously been written. They may still need to tweak it but they wonâ€™t waste time finding it. Have you ever tried searching for a paragraph of text in a Word document located somewhere on a network drive? Next to impossible.
Writers love style guides. It makes their job easier because they donâ€™t have to reinvent the rules, and results in professional and consistent documents. A tool that can enforce style rules, like font choices for specific types of content, means that your documents will look the same no matter who created them. That crazy guy from compliance wonâ€™t be able to use purple Comic Sans anymore.
Using a tool that removes the need for writers to think about formatting and pagination means they arenâ€™t distracted by these tasks. They can concentrate on what they are good at â€“ creating quality content.
Avoid the Microsoft Word time hole
How much time do your writers spend fixing headers and footers, page numbers, and formatting in their Word documents? Chances are it is a lot of time â€“ especially if a number of people have edited the document. Tools that remove Word from the document creation process or simplify complex Word tasks can save a heap of time.
What help is there?
There are a number of tools out there that can help your writers spend more time writing. Depending on the scale and requirements of your writing department, the following are just two options:
Author-it (www.author-it.com), which is designed for large scale, multi-user authoring and document creation. Its strengths are in re-using content, publishing to multiple formats (Word, PDF, HTML, and others), and enforcing corporate styles. It has a content library so writers can easily find and re-use content. Author-it is a cloud-based product.
Apps for Office (www.appsforoffice.com) works from within Microsoft Word to remove some of the complexity of Word and help writers conform to corporate styles. Itâ€™s ideal for writers working on reports, proposals, contracts, and other business documents. It includes a report wizard, which is customised to the organisation.
Writers are attracted to their profession because they love to write â€“ not because they love to traverse network drives to find information, or wrestle with phantom section breaks in Word. Providing good authoring tools means they produce higher quality, professional, and consistent documents in less time.
Hamish has more than twelve yearsâ€™ technical communication experience across a number of industries. He specialises in multi-channel publishing, developing end-to-end publishing solutions, and is an Author-it certified consultant and an Apps for Office consultant.
Hamish Blunck is the owner of Segue Consulting (www.seg-consult.com) which provides professional technical communication, Author-it consulting, and online communication services.
Are you interested in creating change within your organisation and with your customers?
An approach called â€œdesign thinkingâ€ or â€œdesign-led innovationâ€ is being embraced in a range of industries to identify customer needs. For example, check out this recent story on ABC News about how our financial industry is using design thinking:
Design thinking builds on some of the principles used by product designers. Successful designers are typically remembered for their beautiful designs that have function as well as form. They excel at creating the emotional connection we have with products. This can be applied to all types of businesses and problems â€“ it's not just about the transaction, but experiences within and outside the business.
To quote from Briggs et al :
â€œIncreasingly, the public not only expect services to be more accessible and reliable; they expect them to meet their personal needs. Citizens are moving out of their traditional role as "passive recipients" to that of engaged consumers, and service delivery models can and should evolve to meet this. Increasingly complex social goals, especially preventative measures, cannot be achieved by doing things to people as opposed to doing things with them"
The principles and processes that are intuitive to product designers can be used in other areas of business. Creating and aligning teams of people that think like designers can give you a competitive edge in the market place and create meaningful customer and employee experiences.
Design thinking focuses on using skills such as empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism and collaboration in everyday business and leadership.
Design thinkers encapsulate a customer-centric business approach and focus on real-world interactions and experimentation. They are led by deep insights into customer needs (articulated and unarticulated), and create products, services, processes, business models, strategies and conversations that have high value for your customers and employees.
Jane Cockburn is the founder of Kairos Now, a business that builds design-thinking capability within organisations. Kairos Now coaches and trains clients to reframe problems, identify opportunities and step up the level of innovation.
 Briggs et al1, "Co-Design: Toward A New Service Vision For Australia?" Jan 2011
The pyramid structure means writing â€œoverview first, then detailsâ€. Find out why it's used so widely.
Nowadays, many people start by skim-reading any writing that comes their way. Readers approach informational writing with questions like â€œIs this of interest to me?â€, â€œWhat is this all about?â€, â€œWill this tell me about â€¦?â€ As writers, there are a few things we can do to help readers find information quickly. One such thing is to use the â€œpyramid structureâ€, a way of structuring the contents of our writing so that we start answering the reader's questions immediately. A newspaper story, an effective memo and a well-written manual all tend to have the pyramid structure in common.
In the pyramid structure, the beginning of the writing already contains all the information developed in the rest of writing, but in a general or abstract way without any of the details. The details are presented further on in the writing. The beginning is read by most people and fewer people tend to continue on to read the details. The pyramid structure requires the writer to make a good general statement and to formulate an overview.
The story is in the heading and the first paragraph
In a newspaper article, the whole story is in the headline and the first paragraph, answering the questions journalists are taught to answer. Every subsequent paragraph picks up on something mentioned in the first paragraph. Most people read the headline and the first paragraph, and the story loses readers as the details increase. This structure also helps editors easily make a newspaper story fit a space by chopping off paragraphs from the bottom upwards.
A memo is directed to a specific audience and you open with what is of most interest to this audience: the report, the recommendation, the decision or directive, etc. The next paragraph is the why, that is the reasons supporting what you said in the first paragraph. The following paragraphs provide more details about the background, methods used, special considerations, etc. (this is sometimes referred to as the how). The memo finishes with a section about what to do from here i.e. now what.
Every section is a pyramid
The concept of a pyramid structure is also useful in manuals and technical documentation, and can be thought of as â€œoverview first, then detailsâ€. The manual as a whole, each chapter, each section within the chapter, even each paragraph, is written overview first, then details. The first chapter of the manual gives an introduction and an overview of the subject matter as a whole. Every subsequent chapter deals with an aspect within the subject matter, with the first section of the chapter giving an overview of the entire chapter and the subsequent sections developing the details. The first sentence of a paragraph, also, is a general sentence describing what follows in the rest of the paragraph.
Writing a good overview is an art
Writing good overviews, which mention and hint at everything to follow, is an art which can be developed. A good overview is such that when the reader has read it, there will be no surprises in the content to follow. Some writers like to write overviews first so that they are sure that they understand what they are writing about and clear as to what they will cover.
Overviews set the scene and provide a background of understanding. This is one of the problems in the IT industry, where writing tends to be â€œtoo much detail, too soonâ€.
The pyramid structure is often contrasted with the â€œmystery outlineâ€, where the information of interest to the reader is buried somewhere towards the back (like in a whodunit), after discussions about background, method, data etc. Unless it's a novel, this sort of structure loses the reader's interest very easily.