The three ingredients of cost-effective writing

After more than a decade of working with other knowledge workers, as both a consultant and writing teacher, I have concluded that the cost-effectiveness of our writing outputs boils down to three crucial ingredients.

  1. Clearly define goals and briefs
  2. Only allow essential contributors to work on the output
  3. Appropriately design the information

These three ingredients result from behaviours – from what people do, not from what people think or say people should do – and while I don’t know anyone who advocates for their opposites, a team that is openly and consistently expected to achieve these three activities will produce better outputs for lower costs.

To help you to achieve these activities in the writing work you are involved with, here is a brief clarification of each one.

#1 Clearly define goals and briefs
The success of any activity is intimately influenced by the quality of its goal. If the goal is clear and compelling, the activity is more likely to be successful – and achieved for a reasonable cost – than if the goal is unclear or arbitrary.

A clear goal is the starting point of a clear brief, and a clear brief is an essential tool for anyone wanting to write as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If a brief is loose in any way, a writer will write more than is necessary – and take longer to do so – and the superfluous material will either dilute the effectiveness of the document if it isn’t edited out, or further increase the cost if it is.

So, the quality of a document (or other form of writing output) depends on the performance of both briefer and writer. In my experience, organisations that appropriately re-value the influence of briefs enjoy tremendous productivity gains.

#2 Only allow essential contributors to work on the output
A loose brief is a recipe for wastage with a single writer, and that influence grows exponentially with every extra person permitted to contribute to the output.

Let me make an important distinction here. I am not talking about the number of people contributing to decisions about whatever goes into an output – a five-person brainstorming session may identify optimal content more effectively and efficiently than a sole writer – I am talking about the number of people actually writing, reviewing, editing, and authorising the output.

In government departments, where writing teams are the norm, improving this process represents a huge opportunity for improving the cost-effectiveness of writing outputs and, due to the prevalence of such work, the entire organisation. In my experience, it is still common for people who have not received the brief to be invited to edit or rewrite material, which defeats the purpose of the brief and leads to unnecessary and inconsistent content, and expensive rework. Not surprisingly, it also tends to frustrate the briefed writer (or writers).

Every hour not spent rewriting is another hour available to think-up better content in the first place. Excellent writers tend to think and consult widely, and draft and polish sharply.

#3 Appropriately design the information
In today’s information overloaded context, pretty much all information needs to be designed for consumption.

If you think of information like clothing, it makes sense that if you have a multitude of options for what clothing to buy and wear, you will choose something well designed rather than merely functional. The same distinction – and choice – applies to information.

Clothing stores often contain a ‘basics’ range, so not everything has to be overtly designed, but unless an item of clothing is designed for comfort, ease of use, and attractiveness, as well as for its basic utility, it is unlikely to be bought or worn.

Too many documents are difficult to read, difficult to navigate, and boring to look at. They are not tailored, so they are passed over by all but those paid to labour through them – an excessively costly exercise.

So, I encourage you not to rely on auto-pilot, that is, writing how you have always written or as you are implicitly instructed by an out-of-date template. Rather, pop your designer hat on every time you write and, without reinventing the wheel or flouting branding guidelines, design your valuable information appropriately for its purpose, audience, and context.

 


Don’t put off improving how you write, or how you manage writers. Attend Simon’s two public courses at Victoria University Professional and Executive Development

Victoria University iconPlaces are currently still available for the next one-day Managing for Optimal Documents and Writing Essentials courses on Thursday 22 and Tuesday 20 September, respectively.


Meet Simon at Clarity2016, the plain language conference for law, business, and government, Wellington, 3–5 November 2016.

Why solving writing issues starts at the top

Updated May 11, 2016

What’s the problem?
Large organisations all produce large amounts of information, but how much of it is useful and how well is it being produced?

The documents are typically generated by a committee of sorts, not a lone writer. The quality of outputs is usually variable, but the cost is almost always high. This is because the core writing process is bloated with accumulated layers of well-intentioned contributions (from multiple briefers, reviewers, and authorisers).

Because our ability to usefully consume information is limited, a lot of information today is unusable but still costly.

Producing too much information increases cost and makes the extra information unusable. Most organisations ignore the fact that humans cannot usefully consume unlimited amounts of information.

In government agencies, it is common for more than a dozen senior staff — in addition to the writer(s) — to contribute to the production of even a relatively simple ministerial briefing (see the tables below). This explodes costs without a commensurate boost to the quality of outputs.

In corporate environments, it is also common for large teams to produce exhaustive documents (such as business cases, sales documents, or board papers) in which the audience’s need for critical and concise decision-making information remains unmet, or is buried in swathes of non-essential ‘padding’.

Instead of all this effort leading to excellent outputs, the busyness usually obscures responsibilities and leaves writers confused about what they should write, for whom, and to whose satisfaction.

What’s the solution?
Office workers, like all of us, work within systems whose influence cannot be overestimated.

…the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in — W. Edwards Deming

When managers determine documents are costing too much in relation to their usefulness, they often respond by sending their colleagues to a business writing course (such as my Writing Essentials course). But the performance of those colleagues is bound by the quality of the document production system they work in. Until the system is improved (or, more likely, transformed), the outputs of the system cannot consistently improve.

For example, a system that allows loose briefs is one that forces writers to guess and ensures costly rework (drafts, edits, reviews).

So, before you send your writers to a writing course, I encourage you to attend Nakedize’s new, leader-focussed Managing for Optimal Documents course. In one day you will learn how to design and operate an optimal document production system. Clever knowledge workers transformed the manufacturing sector decades ago (think Toyota and Total Quality Management) with this kind of approach, and it’s long overdue for the knowledge sector to take its own advice.


Save 15% on the next public course at Victoria University, Wellington

Victoria University iconManaging for Optimal Documents is available as a Victoria University Professional and Executive Education short course. We are delighted to have secured a 15% discount for our readers. Just book here and enter the code Nakedize15 on the checkout page.


New: Visualising document production lines

For optimal efficiency, a document produced via a managerial commissioning and review process would have only two participants. The writer writes for the audience to the satisfaction of the manager. Simple.

Table of optimal efficiency in roles for document production
But what typically occurs in large organisations is a much costlier process with many more chefs in the kitchen. This is a real-world example of the production line for writing a briefing paper for a minister. (CE stands for chief executive and DCE stands for deputy chief executive.)

Table of typical inefficiency in roles for document production in government
In a system like this, writers are (not surprisingly) unlikely to be certain of the goal and audience, and of who actually decides if their work is satisfactory or not. Thankfully, restaurant kitchens don’t have ‘loose’ systems like this. If they did, we would all be paying a lot more for our meals, waiting a very long time for them, and never being quite sure what we would actually be served.

It’s time for transformation.