Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Finding the balance

Editing your own writing is harder than editing someone else's -- especially if you're editing for substance rather than just grammar. That's because it's difficult to be objective about what you've written. This is particularly true when writing about something you've worked on, like a case or project.

There are two main traps people tend to fall into when they write about something they've been intimately involved with:

  1. they omit significant details or information; or
  2. they include too much information or too many details.

The problem of omitting significant information happens because you forget what details you've learned as a result of working through the project. Think about it -- if you've been working on something for a month and you know how it works backwards, forwards, upside-down and inside-out, it's pretty easy to forget that not everyone knows all the background information you do.

The problem of including too much information or detail can come from the desire to impress people with all the steps it took you to arrive at your conclusion or decision, or from being so close to the subject that you can no longer differentiate between crucial details and less important ones.

In writing about the project, your job is to strike a balance between necessary information and excessive information. The best way to do this is by putting yourself in the position of the reader and by remembering that readers are counting on you to tell them what they need to know, while taking care not to waste their time with information.

If you're in doubt about whether you've said too much or too little -- find a test audience. After the person's read the document, ask him or her to summarize it for you. Don't ask for a critique of the document -- ask for an explanation of what they read and listen to what they say. (If it's a long document you may have to ask them to explain it section-by-section.)

You know you have more work to do on the document if, as you listen:

  • it's clear they've misunderstood what you were trying to say,
  • you feel compelled to explain something more, or
  • you feel the urge to interrupt them to tell them about it in another way or using other words.


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