Thursday, May 28, 2009

Breaking Writer’s Block, Part 2: Ask Questions

Writing at work is like engaging in a dialogue. Take a look at these two sample sentences:
  1. Purchasing a SmartyPants Smartphone for our sales representatives would enhance their client relationships, data sharing capabilities, and accessibility to management from remote locations.
  2. On Friday, May 22, 2009, at 2:46 a.m., a significant event occurred when CompuGook Version 13.7 crashed at Server 16, causing a service interruption of 11 minutes, 23 seconds, and a save failure of 34 transactions valued at $52,963.07.
Think of the questions these statements answer. Sentence 1 answers five: What should we purchase? For whom should we purchase it? Would it enhance the sales representatives’ client relationships? Would it enhance their data sharing capabilities? Would it enhance their accessibility to management from remote locations? Sentence 2 answers eight: When did a significant event occur? To what did the event occur? At what location did it occur? How long did it last? Did it cause a service interruption? Did it cause a save failure? How many transactions were affected? How much income was at stake?

Now, let’s think in reverse. These are the very questions that your readers would want answered when reviewing a proposal (sentence 1) or root-cause analysis (sentence 2). Of course, the writer has more questions to answer (e.g., for sentence 1: What is the cost of the smartphone? Is the smartphone service good? And for sentence 2: What was the cause of the crash? Did we recover the transactions?). But we should not take for granted what the questions are.

So here’s a good way to get started when you’re stuck: Write down the questions your readers would have about your topic—and then answer them. Before you know it, you’ll be pounding away at the keyboard in a freeform burst of creative energy.

Here are links to books on writing by Philip Vassallo: