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After a Writing Workshop – Making it Stick

March 21, 2011

A customer of mine asked me, after a half-day workshop, how he should support his team to remember the messages and continue to improve their writing skills. It is such a good question that it deserves a thoughtful answer, so here are my thoughts.

1. Emphasise the importance of writing quality by bringing it into discussions of documents on a regular basis.

2. Actively encourage good reading habits: ask people what they have read recently and whether they recommend the writer as a style guru.

3. Set an example by living the messages delivered in the workshop – as follows.

At the planning stage:

• Include a reminder about house style in the initial brief – for example use of the active voice and short sentences.

• Build adequate time for reviewing and proofreading into the timetable and allocate people to be responsible for both.

During the writing process:

• Encourage individuals to plan before hitting the keyboard – keep the content, storyboard and structure separate from the writing style.

• Make yourself available for one or more interim discussions of early drafts, and agree what you will be commenting on (for example, only the message and not the use of English for now).

• Remind them to write fast, using a symbol to indicate unfinished sentences and facts that need to be checked.

At the checking stage

• Encourage them to spot check using ‘readability statistics’ on one or two sections of their work.

• Be very clear about who is checking what. Proofreaders are not responsible for content.

• Use a light touch. Only change what is wrong, inconsistent, difficult to read or clearly contrary to house style. Don’t be tempted to change words to conform to your personal writing style.

After delivery to the customer

• Give personal feedback on writing style once in a while.

• Bring good and bad habits to people’s attention.

• Share best practice and encourage discussion.

PS: For those who know what I am talking about, this article averages 15.5 words per sentence and scores 57.9 on the Flesch reading ease scale.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank Hobson permalink
    March 23, 2011 08:58

    But the sentence length is only 15 because you have put a full stop at the end of each bullet rather than just the last one with ;s after the others.

    • March 23, 2011 09:09

      Interestingly, that is not true. I thought it would be, but I have just taken them all out and it made no difference. Word must be counting bullets as separate sentences.

      Punctuating bullets is a topic I find myself having to discuss for more time that I feel it merits – you can put a ; at the end of each, or nothing at the end of each and a full stop at the end of the set. House style should dictate but often doesn’t. I put a full stop at the end of the ones in that article because they were sentences. If they had been items or phrases I wouldn’t have. there are no very satisfactory rules for this I find. So it confuses everyone – a bit like apostrophes.

      Thank you for the comment!

  2. March 23, 2011 09:23

    I’m of the school: colon to introduce the list, no punctuation at the end of the point, closing point with a stop. It gets slightly knotty where you have bullet point with multiple sentences, like your penultimate list, final point. On balance I’d normally follow the same rule and bluff it out 🙂

    • March 23, 2011 09:29

      I’m broadly with you. If you make the rules too complicated (different punctuation if the bullets are sentences) hardly anyone will get it right and those that do will be criticised for being inconsistent! Trying to set rules for the house style of a large corporation is a nightmare – hard enough to decide what to do myself.

  3. Frank Hobson permalink
    March 23, 2011 09:52

    Maybe it’s because you started each bullet with a capital letter. But if you really want to wind some people up try discussing wether you should ever use ‘and’ or ‘or’ between the penulatimate and last bullets (I never would in bullets but would in a sentence equivalent).

  4. March 23, 2011 10:17

    “Keep the content, storyboard and structure separate from the … style”
    Oh this translates into so many fields – software development certainly, and fine art (often) benifit from this rule, or it’s close cousins

    • March 23, 2011 10:32

      How very interesting. There must be some mileage in this. I am thinking about cross-skill workshops or discussions or something…

  5. March 23, 2011 10:56

    I am intrigued by the use of bullets. What is a bullet? A punctuation mark? Or is it a typographical mark that has somehow wandered into our sentence? After a bit of research I discovered there were three bullet lists in common use, and all others were variations on these. My simple rule is to apply ‘sentence logic’ to bullet lists. This means treating them as punctuation, and then we are on the familiar ground of making our text readable. And that is the role of the writer – to use punctuation to make our text, in sentences, readable. This suggests that bullets are another way of presenting a sentence. This avoids the common misuse of bullets as a dumping ground for text where the writer gives up on the discipline of writing well and hopes the reader can make sense of strings of loosely associated words. Misused bullets are an excuse for bad writing. They are also an often confusing alternative to blocking text. And an excuse for not using headers. Bullets are there to support our texts (and headers and paragraphs and sentences) not to mash them.

    As for punctuation – using sentence logic works for me. If a bullet list can collapse back into a well-formed sentence, I’m happy. If not, then I need to look at my bullet list; because I know it will lack comprehension and will lead to re-reading (cardinal sin). Bullets: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. [TS]

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