I had the assignment and clear instructions. How do I jump-start the writing?
My first procedure assignment was to document the mortgage default process in various disaster scenarios. My mentor and I had met with the SMEs (subject matter experts) in Collections, Loss Mitigation, and Foreclosure. We had the notes. It was my job to write the initial draft.
I stared at the blank screen, unable to type anything. How do I tackle the assignment? Where do I start?
Can’t start at the beginning…I don’t even know where that is!
I picked a few phrases from the notes and typed the middle steps of the mortgage default process. I ignored the Critique Committee that yelled, “That’s the middle. Start at the beginning!” I kept typing. Ultimately, I reordered the messy first draft. It was time to share my first efforts with my mentor.
My mentor attacked the draft, crossing out sentences and sometimes an entire section. Then she looked at me and said, “You must think I didn’t like what you wrote, huh?”
Meekly, I responded, “Um, yeah. It appears that way.”
“Oh, but that’s not accurate. This is great stuff!”
“How could that be if you crossed out the text and moved sentences around?”
“Because you got us started. I couldn’t even do that! I couldn’t figure out where to start the procedures! Now let’s figure out how we’re going to reorganize the document and provide the clients with what they need.”
How had I started? Based on what I’d learned from Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird. Pick any point and start crafting a sentence. Write the next point. Keep going. Edit and reorganize later.
Here are my go-to sources to jump-start writing assignments. Note: Although these resources focus on creative writing or memoirs, I use the same techniques to document procedures, policies, work instructions, and even workflows. Yes! I’ve started workflows in the middle and worked backwards!
Just Start Writing
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
“Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger. The cooking is slow, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a roast or a banquet or a lamb chop will be the result.” (p. 37)
A few tips:
- Have a notebook and pen. “Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use…. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.” (pp. 6–7)
- “Don’t think. Don’t get logical.” (p. 8) Sometimes a metaphor that sounds illogical strongly describes an event.
- One of my favorites: Keep writing, without editing. “First thoughts have tremendous energy.” (p. 9)
Sure, in a technical document we need a logical process and conclusion. If we’re documenting How to Cook a Hamburger, we don’t start with Buy a Lamp Chop. Yet what if we’re describing a new process we’re not familiar with? Or what might happen if while we describe the process, we uncover inconsistencies? Or perhaps we find ways to improve the process? True, we started with How to Cook a Hamburger; yet in the process, we might realize we’re documenting How to Cook a Hamburger on a Grill.
This is exactly what happened while documenting the mortgage default process. Collections SMEs told me that they gave the files (in the years of hard-copy files) to Foreclosure. Foreclose SMEs told me they received files from Loss Mitigation. Ummm….just where did you guys get your files from? We had to backtrack and create the Life of a Mortgage File process flow to understand the steps.
We ended up with a banquet!
Begin with a Few Words; Rewrite
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Having trouble getting started? Anne’s advice: “Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.” (p. 4) While she’s talking about writing a memoir, the method words for any writing. Assessment reports record the findings from an in-person survey. The factual information and customized recommendations were not the basis of a novel. Yet the method worked. I used to plug my nose, jump into the deep end, and record the findings. As I wrote, ideas for recommendations tailored to the company appeared on the page.
Does everything come out perfectly the first time? No. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” On pp. 25-26, Anne outlines the purposes of drafts (adapted here):
- Draft 1: Get the subject down on paper (or the screen). Quiet the Critique Committee.
- Draft 2: Fix up the first draft; strive for accuracy.
- Draft 3: Dental draft, “…check every tooth…” (p. 26); make sure each word and phrase fits.
Her guidance on what to do when the panic mounts and words don’t come? “…[W]rite down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” (p. 17) How much text fits in a one-inch picture frame?
Where does that get us? To the next step, the next sentence. We write word by word. Or as Anne’s father advised her 10-year-old brother, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (p. 19)
Remove Cluttered Language
On Writing Well, William Zinsser (page references from the 25th edition)
Zinsser’s classic “… is a craft book. … a book that would teach the craft of writing warmly and clearly…” (p. xi) Writing still requires “plan old hard work—clear thinking—and the plain old tools of the English language.” (p. xii) Zinsser discusses his growth and the technological innovations since he first wrote the book in 1976; he expanded and published newer editions. Zinsser’s last version, 30th anniversary edition, was published in 2006.
“Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.” (p. 14, 25th ed.) “Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area…” (p. 14 ibid) He counsels us to “beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: ‘assistance’ (help), “numerous” (many)…” (p. 16 ibid). Zinsser charges us to simplify the language.
How? Here’s the method Zinsser used with his Yale students: (p. 17 ibid)
- Bracket the superfluous word, phrase, or even paragraphs.
- “Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.”
- Ask yourself these questions: (p. 17)
- “Is every word doing new work?”
- “Can any thought be expressed with more economy?”
- “Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish?”
- “Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?”
Develop a Writing Practice
Inside Secrets to the Craft of Writing, Shifrah Devorah Witt
Writing—any type of writing—builds my abilities and improves the craft. Find a time, place, and space; make it a ritual, a writing practice.
Challenged by selecting a topic? “For many people inspiration is the key.” (p. 5) But what if I’m not inspired? What happens when I’m tasked with writing dry procedures? Think: How to Send a Secure Text Message or Patient Instructions for MRIs of the Feet. “…it is also important to learn to inspire yourself. Surround yourself with music, color, scents, poetry, or quotations that inspire you and make you feel good. The more inspired you feel, the more inspired your writing will be.” (p. 5)
I have colorful paintings on my walls. The room fills with the sunlight that warms my back as I type. When I need an inspiration break, I walk out onto the porch, and survey the greenery: rejuvenated lavender; purple-tinged succulents; small green tree in the clay pot, and the flower-shaped succulent. I then look up at the light blue sky. Somewhere between the white cotton candy clouds, inspiration hits or the next step in the process I’m writing becomes clear.
Inspired, I return to write.
- Just start writing about the topic.
- Begin with a few words and keep writing; revise later.
- Remove the cluttered language.
- Develop a writing practice.
On Why Writing Matters–A Postscript
Regardless of genre, I need to remember why I write. Because writing touches something inside me and I want to share that piece with others.
Anne Lamott, p. 237 on why writing matters: