Learning, Writing

Six Things a Dull Work Task Taught Me about Writing

Merging two departments at our university means surgically coupling incompatible websites. Having spliced on the temporary graft last month, we now tackle the trickier job of weaving source to source so the seams don’t show. Today’s task involved rooting around under the patch to prune redundancies and rewrite bits of content.

Flagging here at the end of a seven-hour editing marathon, I take a breather and a gander. Weaving its way through the pages is a clean-edged trail of snappy language. It’s a marvel. In less than a single work day, I wrote a comprehensive volume of coherent text. Clicking through the screens, I see more passages composed more clearly than any of the bloated essay drafts oozing from my grasp the past few months.

Why does this work? What is it about tip-tapping away on a web-based work project that sparks such productivity and — dare I say it — craft? A bullet job might look like a different species than “real” writing. Get a little closer and you’ll see it is part of the pack. In fact, it has something to show us about how to deal with its more menacing kin.

1. Turn Up the Pressure

Your work needs to be out there. Somebody somewhere wants it.

Today’s task confirms that procrastination has poor return on investment. The current site’s content is either incomplete or inaccurate. Students need it finished and live. We make our jobs harder when we deprive students of proper guidance and then scramble to fix the mistakes they make without it. The only alternative to doing the work quickly is taking down whole sections of the site, and that’s a waste of good progress on a valuable project.

Your work matters enough to get it out there. Set a hard deadline and meet it.


2. Name the Audience

Put your reader in a blaze orange vest and have her stand at each intersection telling you which way to go. When the parade is in town, you need to be able to pick her out of the crowd.

For today’s task, the site’s readers line up in this order:

a. New students
b. Prospective students
c. Current students
d. Administrators from around the school
e. Faculty advisors
f. Student services providers at other universities

I keep all of them in mind — as well as their ranking — as I make decisions about what to write and how to arrange it all. The content has to rise to the standards of d, e, and f while primarily meeting the needs of a, b, and c.

Have your reader stand up and tell you what she needs to know.


3. Choose your Note and Strike It

Is it black tie at the opera or Chacos at a drum jam?

A website is one face of a person or organization. Word choices and sentence structures need to project the culture the site represents. That’s a big way of saying that the text is an ambassador. Its tone should give the reader a sense of how people inside deal with each other.

For today’s task, I determined that the site should be conversational but not chatty. The voice echoes what someone might hear at a student orientation or an admissions info session. It steers clear of stiffness and jargon while maintaining its polish. I dress my language on the tailored side of “business casual.” The tie is loose but it’s still a tie.

Put on wing tips and you’ll step like a boss. That’s how it goes. Once you set a tone, you start humming along.

Read it out loud. Does what you’re hearing fit your reader’s ear?


4. Memorize your Purpose

To use that voice with confidence, you have to know what you’re trying to achieve.

Today’s task highlights the website’s role in meeting the school’s larger goal: training the next generation of scholars. The content needs to do more than provide basic information. It must also introduce our Shiny! New! Story! as we make our way through this merger. When deciding how to compose and organize, these counterbalanced themes simplify my options. The site has two basic jobs:

a. Informing students of the resources, expectations, and procedures while also. . .
b. Conveying the scholarly mores of our emerging school

Both form and the content have clear objectives. I know what they are. Indecision doesn’t stand a chance.

Make the goal your mantra. Return to it when your words rebel.


5. Erect a Scaffold

Outlines may be overrated but they anchor your belay as you clamber through the work.

Prior to today’s task, I created the site’s format. That was a few years back. I plucked gems and threads from other websites and used them to assemble a frame. Re-creating the whole thing now would be senseless. This skeleton gets the job done. No need to worry about the fit. Trusting the structure lets me muck around inside the passages and fill them with content. If I find myself hammering something in at an awkward angle, I can crack joints, split seams, and make it all move where it needs to go.

Draft an outline in plain English and start filling in words. You can place things in another order once you have things to place.


6. Dice it into Bites

Bullets within categories within headings let you enjoy the carnita without staring down the pig.

Today’s task attends to one idea at a time. I work in this category right now, answering this question right here. What’s the use of fiddling around with other issues? If something pops up, I jot it down and return to sorting out this shred of text.

On most websites, an idea appears on the page in a size that’s easy to digest. Writing this way can be simply devilish until you make it devilishly simple. Divide the work up into ever smaller pieces. Bring one up front and get to work. If the reader needs more material, find or make a place for it, link it, and fill in later.

Cut with a clean edge then go trim the fat.

“Bird by bird,” as Anne LaMott says. Don’t write a book. Shape an idea.

Just one.

This one.
Take a shot at injecting these features of 9-5 writing into your more defiant projects. You just might bring them to a heel. Then you can really move.

4 thoughts on “Six Things a Dull Work Task Taught Me about Writing”

  1. I often think “Bird by bird” when the task at hand is so large. I have a report due on Monday and will be thinking of this post! Have a great weekend.

  2. You apply lessons learned designing a website to writing but, as a website designer, I found the original lessons succinct and well phrased. I passed this entry on to our IT manager and we’re going to go over it at our next programmer’s meeting to see if we can improve our process any. Just thought you would like to know 🙂

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