Writing Project Deliverables People LIKE to Read
By Susan de la Vergne
Have you ever said to yourself, “Wow, I just can’t wait to read that project plan!” Or “This product evaluation document is a real page-turner. I can’t wait to see how it ends!”
Whether it’s an email, a proposal, a test plan, a design document, budget notes or a performance review, business writing is…well…boring.
Does it have to be?
First of all, is business boring? Sure, sometimes—dull meetings, drab assignments. But you also get hot assignments. You’ve also been to meetings where breakthroughs occurred or fights broke out. You’ve awakened in the middle of the night thinking about a work problem you can’t solve. You’ve reveled in the excitement of discovery.
Is that boring? Hardly. So why is business writing boring? Why are project deliverables drab, lifeless and dense?
Because everyone expects them to be. Dispassionate, dry, predictable writing is the accepted norm.
In the back of your mind, you may be thinking, “Who really cares if it’s well-written? Just make yourself read it. It’s project documentation, not a great novel. Does it matter?”
Yes! It matters! Better writing isn’t just a nice-to-have. Here’s why:
Engineering and technology work depends on knowledge transfer (project phase hand-offs, for example, or training). Even RFPs fall into that category—transferring requirement information to prospective vendors. Consider how many written deliverables must be persuasive—planning reports, for example, and just about anything describing change.
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When these are poorly written—confusing, dense, disorganized—readers end up re-reading them, maybe more than once. Re-work is wasted time, and therefore wasted expense. When readers are confused, they email the author for an explanation. They can’t proceed on their work because they’re waiting. That’s wasted productivity!
Or consider this: The reader opens a document to read it. But because it’s boring, he’s easily drawn away from the material. He puts it down, walks away, comes back, takes another run at it. He has to have it read before the meeting the next day, so he grabs a latte. Ah, better. “But will the buzz get me through the remaining 20 pages?”
It simply takes longer to read something that’s poorly written. And what is wasted time? Wasted expense!
Imagine, instead, a written deliverable that’s fresh, well-expressed, and interesting. It’s a project plan, and you just can’t put it down. It’s a status report with a sense of humor. It’s a how-to manual that’s written so efficiently and clearly, you have no trouble following instructions the first time. It’s so good, in fact, that the next time you have a question about this same bit of technology, you actually don’t mind looking it up.
Would you like to write like that?
Here are a few easy steps that you, as a writer of project deliverables, can take:
1) Choose fresh words. Don’t “peel the onion” or “think outside the box.” Worn-out phrases are dull reading. Try peeling the mango (ooh, slippery!) or thinking outside the parking lot. Anything to get rid of predictable, tired phrases! (And while we’re at it, how about 7 x 25?)
2) Figure out which are the most important points to feature BEFORE you start writing. If your reader were to forget almost everything he’s read, what are the two or three most important points (arguments, details, data points) he must remember and act on? Organize your document around those points.
3) Resist the urge to load up your writing with words that end in “-tion.” Don’t say “provide organization.” Say “organize.” Don’t say your “objective is risk mitigation;” say your “objective is to mitigate risk.” Verbs are always more fun to read than nouns.
Here’s one last crazy idea: Hire a writer to join your team and work on your project deliverables. Have you ever noticed that most companies hire writers to work in marketing, to write web copy and press releases, but that most of the operational writing is left to fend for itself? And at what cost (that is, wasted expense)? Hiring a writer to write project deliverables—now that’s an outside-the-parking-lot idea!