Good Habits

Even on my days off, I have my morning routine: bed made, teeth brushed, face shaved, body showered, clothed, and fed. I might vary the order in which those things are done, but usually within an hour of resuming consciousness, I’m dressed and ready to face my day. It could be very easy to fall into sloth–skip the shower, don’t get dressed until noon–but I know that if I don’t get myself into gear, I’ll be useless most of the day.

In a similar way, it’s taken me 20 years or so to develop regular habits as a professional writer. Yours might vary, but if you want be good at writing and effective at how you do your job, you’ll need to cultivate some good habits of your own. And I can tell you up front, most of these had to be worked on; they did not come naturally.

Keep your writing fresh

In one job I had, we had a “junk file” full of paragraphs to handle certain topics or situations. Some of those paragraphs were approved by the Legal Department and so unchangeable. However, in those situations where no legal requirement had been laid down, I eventually gave up on copying and pasting from the junk file. It was better to keep my writing fresh if I approached even familiar situations with a fresh eye. I might come up with a better way of saying something, it kept the brain fresh, and it justified paying me as a writer rather than a form-filler.

In other companies, I’ve used boilerplate text for proposals–summaries of the company history, date of founding, description of facilities, etc.–and for the most part that stuff doesn’t change much over time. Still, it is worth reviewing the text on hand to see how it can be modified to highlight specific aspects of a given solicitation. Again, the boilerplate can save time, but it benefits me to keep tweaking and improving. I’ve found myself reviewing paragraphs I myself have written and totally rewriting them because I didn’t like the tone or know there are better ways to convey the same information. It boils down to keeping your tool (your brain) sharp.

Look it up, then ask

I’ve written about this before, but if there is a simple question of fact that you need to know in your work, try looking it up first before asking someone. You might have a good relationship with your subject matter experts, but they’re busy, and if you’ve been at your job for awhile, it’s better to earn your pay by taking the time to do the work yourself. And the act of looking things up for yourself makes you more likely to remember it the next time you need it.

Be willing to ask questions

I think it was Frank Herbert who said that “Knowing is the largest barrier to learning.” I concur. If looking things up (see above) won’t cut it, you need to be willing to ask someone what might seem like a dumb question. Mind you, we acquire familiarity with our subject matter just through regular contact with it. That’s not the same as being an actual expert. And while my writerly ego might think I know something, I would prefer to get things right the first time rather than get corrected later.

Make sure you’re answering the mail

My two primary questions in any new writing assignment are, “Who is my audience and how do I need them to react?” Sometimes I’ll ask about the context or situation of the request–political sensitivities, a need for haste, that sort of thing–so I can factor in those considerations in what I write.

Have an organized process for your work

There are many different ways to organize information for a writing assignment. My buddy Dauna keeps her notes scribbled in notebooks or sticky notes scattered all over her desk. The system drives me nuts, but if I had a question about her work, she could find what I was asking about. If you’re so disorganized that you can’t find your notes, your content, or your resources, you’ll be of no use to anyone. In addition to physical materials, you should have some sort of consistent logic to how you set up your files on your computer. Lastly, it’s important to be able to track your work assignments in some way so that if anyone asks about one at any given time you can find it and can share the status or the actual content. Trust me. I learned this one the hard way.

Good habits = good work

It’s been my experience that, even when I’m required by a manager or customer to have a system or process for setting up my work, it is better and much easier to work out my own system rather than have one imposed on me. And having the tools and resources of your work in order helps you be a better writer because you can rely on yourself to pull the proper rabbit out of the hat when you need it.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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