Writing Actions: Responding and mirroring

Responding and mirroring should help you get in the mood for writing, by engaging with other texts. Read a text of the format in which you are writing (for example, if you are writing a report, choose a report, if a magazine article, choose a magazine article) and write an informal critique of it. If you could ask the writer questions about it, what would you ask? What do you think could have been done better in the document? Rewrite a section to improve it. What is particularly effective in the document, and why? If the document asks a question, answer it. By responding this way to the text, you are building motivation and direction to work on yours. This technique is also called ‘mirroring’, a term from the world of acting. Trainee actors learn to perform by reflecting in their behavior what they observe in a partner responding to a smile with a smile, to a frown with a frown, etc. This is based on the idea that any form of action is also, by extension, a form of communication, that is, it is meaningful in relation to a context and a set of participants. Clearly, then, this is relevant to writing too, and can fruitfully be exploited as a ‘warm-up’ or ‘unblocking’ technique.

Storyboarding

This is a spatial type of outlining used in film and multimedia projects. Small screens are drawn on a page depicting the main visual elements of major scenes in a project. Under each screen is some script describing the main action and indicating any areas that need to be developed for the particular scene. In the case of writing, the screen can be replaced with a descriptive heading. Spatial experimentation can help you find a logical order in which to present your ideas. For both outlining and storyboarding, do not delete documents or files until the project is finished, because you may find that the information, which you deleted assuming to be redundant becomes relevant again at a later stage.

Outlining

With outlining you first come up with section topics, then a summary of the document, and then gradually expand your ideas to create the final document. After some brainstorming, extract the key themes that you identified and give them headings. Under each heading, brainstorm some more points that are related to the heading’s theme. Having ‘filled’ the headings, you will have chunks of information on each theme, which make up a summary of your final document. You can then decide what sequence would be most appropriate, and reorder your section headings in that sequence. Outlining is effective for ‘top-down’ writers, those who begin with a big picture plan of the whole document, and then build up the details as they go. When writing a report, the outline acts as a first draft that can be submitted to a manager or client to show the progress of a project.

Generating Content

After analyzing your audience and determining the purpose and format of your document, it is time to think about the content. This is where researching and thinking come in. Depending on the audience and purpose, different types of research would be relevant. For example, you may decide that interviewing would supply you with essential facts; or you may decide that doing a historical research on a topic would be more suitable; or perhaps a combination of methods would help (more on research in the next chapter). Collecting facts, however, is not sufficient. You need to think about the significance of these facts and to interpret them. This is where your skills of analyzing ideas (tracing their constituent elements) and synthesizing them (evaluating their significance in a given context) come in. The process of generating ideas tests your capacity for critical and creative thinking: your ability to imagine all possible aspects or factors of a problem. Analytical thinkers do not simply arrive at the most obvious solution to a question; they test out a range of possible answers and keep an open mind. As happens with chaos theory, sometimes information that initially seemed irrelevant proves to be the key. To be able to trace analogies between seemingly disparate topics and to suggest innovative solutions are skills highly sought in corporate environments. In fact, at the cutting edge of many industries and business endeavors, you will find individuals who are not only highly motivated and organized, but also creative and versatile in their thinking. After analyzing your audience and determining the purpose and format of your document, it is time to think about the content. This is where researching and thinking come in. Depending on the audience and purpose, different types of research would be relevant. For example, you may decide that interviewing would supply you with essential facts; or you may decide that doing a historical research on a topic would be more suitable; or perhaps a combination of methods would help (more on research in the next chapter). Collecting facts, however, is not sufficient. You need to think about the significance of these facts and to interpret them. This is where your skills of analyzing ideas (tracing their constituent elements) and synthesizing them (evaluating their significance in a given context) come in. The process of generating ideas tests your capacity for critical and creative thinking: your ability to imagine all possible aspects or factors of a problem. Analytical thinkers do not simply arrive at the most obvious solution to a question; they test out a range of possible answers and keep an open mind. As appens with chaos theory, sometimes information that initially seemed irrelevant proves to be the key. To be able to trace analogies between seemingly disparate topics and to suggest innovative solutions are skills highly sought in corporate environments. In fact, at the cutting edge of many industries and business endeavors, you will find individuals who are not only highly motivated and organized, but also creative and versatile in their thinking.

Complicacy of audience levels

Matters get complicated when a document has different levels of audience – primary, immediate and secondary – who have different interests and/or subject knowledge. Such cases make it difficult to imagine who you are writing to. A solution to this problem is to include a section that gives background and definitions of terminology for novices, and/or to include an appendix with more technical details for experts. This way you would be distributing information in a clearly marked and accessible way to the different groups of readers. Returning to the example of the article to the editor, you should include a letter with your article explaining to the editor your goals in writing the article, and justifying your content and stylistic choices (indeed article submissions are generally accompanied by a proposal). This way you address the editor’s concerns, and cater for your primary audience’s anticipated questions. These factors of audience analysis will become increasingly familiar and relevant as you progress through your writing experience.

Audience levels

In addition to analyzing your main or primary audience, you should also consider if you have immediate and secondary audiences. In many cases, the person who will first read the document is not the primary audience. It could be a manager or editor, an intermediary between the writer and the primary audience – this is the immediate audience. The immediate reader often acts as a form of filter or quality control agent of the information before it reaches the primary reader. Additionally, you could have a secondary audience of readers who are likely to read the document even if they are not the target group. Consider an example. If you submit an article for publication to a specialist magazine, you are writing for a public that is interested in the topic of your article; they are your primary audience. However, before the article reaches this audience, it will be read by the magazine’s editor, who will make the final decision about whether to publish the article or not. The editor is, then, the immediate audience (and maybe the only audience, if he/she rejects the article). If published, the article may also be read by readers who are not primarily interested in the topic: they could be journalism students, for example, studying the article as an example of writing. They would be the secondary audience.

Factors of Audience Analysis

Attitude

Attitude refers to the state of mind you expect the readers to be in when they read your document. Will your message find them hostile, neutral or positive’? How motivated are they to read your document’? Are you proposing revolutionary changes to a situation you think your readers will resist changing’? Are you informing them of a breakthrough that will undoubtedly improve the quality of their lifestyle, and that they will be happy to know about’?

How Good Are Your Communication Skills?

Communication skills are some of the most important skills that you need to succeed in the workplace. We talk to people face to face, and we listen when people talk to us. We write emails and reports, and we read the documents that are sent to us. Communication, therefore, is a process that involves at least two people a sender and a receiver. For it to be successful, the receiver must understand the message in the way that the sender intended. This sounds quite simple. But have you ever been in a situation where this hasn’t happened? Misunderstanding and confusion often occur, and they can cause enormous problems. If you want to be an expert communicator, you need to be effective at all points in the communication process and you must be comfortable with the different channels of communication. When you communicate well, you can be very successful. On the other hand, poor communicators struggle to develop their careers beyond a certain point.

Composition and Style

A blank, white computer screen is often intimidating. And it’s easy to get stuck because you don’t know how to start. Try these tips for composing and styling your document:

  • Start with your audience  Remember, your readers may know nothing about what you’re telling them. What do they need to know first?
  • Create an outline  This is especially helpful if you’re writing a longer document such as a report, presentation, or speech. Outlines help you identify which steps to take in which order, and they help you break the task up into manageable pieces of information.
  • Use AIDA  If you’re writing something that must inspire action in the reader, follow the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) formula. These four steps can help guide you through the writing process.
  • Try some empathy  For instance, if you’re writing a sales letter for prospective clients, why should they care about your product or sales pitch? What’s the benefit for them? Remember your audience’s needs at all times.
  • Use the Rhetorical Triangle  If you’re trying to persuade someone to do something, make sure that you communicate why people should listen to you, pitch your message in a way that engages your audience, and present information rationally and coherently. Our article on the Rhetorical Triangle can help you make your case in the most effective way.
  • Identify your main theme  If you’re having trouble defining the main theme of your message, pretend that you have 15 seconds to explain your position. What do you say? This is likely to be your main theme.

Use simple language  Unless you’re writing a scholarly article, it’s usually best to use simple, direct language. Don’t use long words just to impress people.