Improving your professional writing

Writing is an essential skill for many dyslexic professionals. We write to inform and to persuade. Unfortunately, professional writing can be a challenging area for many dyslexics. Interestingly, many famous authors and poets are dyslexic. I am often told that I am more articulate in person than on paper. If we are prepared to adopt a growth mindset we can improve our written product.

Planning is key to effective writing

It is nearly impossible to write effectively without a clear goal in mind. You need to know your objective (to inform, to persuade, etc) and your audience.

Anne Janzer, in her book The Workplace Writer’s Process: A Guide to Getting the Job Done, has a handy 6-point checklist for before you start writing:
1. What’s the objective of your writing?
2. Who’s the target reader?
3. What that reader’s reason for reading?
4. What’s the format?
5. What the review process? Who has to sign off on it?
6. What’s the schedule?

Once you are clear on these six aspects you are nearly ready to pick up a pen/keyboard. Before you start writing consider if writing is the best approach. If the intended audience is a single person (or a small number of people) and the format is email consider if a conversation would be a better approach.

I often shy away from the phone due to my auditory processing issues but I have wrestled with many email relays going back and forth that could have been a simple phone call.

Creating an outline

Most people skip this step and the result can be impenetrable texts. In how to read effectively I explain how the structure of a document can provide an essential framework for grasping the content. The same is true when writing.

I use two strategies for creating an outline depending on what I am writing: mind mapping or creating a table of contents. Both of these approaches force you to consider the key elements of the document and relationships between them. If you mindmap in software such as inspiration you can convert the map into a document outline giving you the best of both worlds.

Creating a structure for the document before you start writing reduces the demand on your working memory as when it comes to the actual writing you will only need to focus on that section of the document rather than the whole thing.

Using a mind map or table of content to structure a document can also help to ensure a balance to the document. It is common for dyslexic writers to do a mind dump of everything they know. This can give more information than needed for some aspects and less than needed for others. If your mindmap looks unbalanced, or your table of content drilled down more levels for one section this could be a warning sign that the document is unbalanced.

Separate researching from writing

With an outline in place, there is a temptation to start filling in the gaps. Before we can start writing we need to collect any supporting data we need. Trying to write and fact check at the same time is multitasking – multitasking is bad. Flitting between your writing programme, the web and several printed reports will prevent you getting into a flow and will tax working memory.

If like me, you are desperate to get some things written before they are forgotten then you can adopt a less strict approach. I often start writing before completing all the supporting research. When there is something I need to fact check I’ll write a note to myself and mark it with **. I can then search for these to ensure I complete the required work. I do this for web links in blog posts to enable me to just write and not jump into a browser and risk distraction. When I fail there are **LINK** comments in my blog posts.

Separate writing from reviewing

Just as researching and writing are cognitively sperate tasks so is writing (drafting) and reviewing (polishing).

Using a markup within a document draft (like **LINK**) can help maintain flow and focus when writing. I’ll often want to convey a point and not know how to express it. Rather than worry about how to express what I am trying to say I’ll write a note to myself (surrounded by **) so I can capture the intent. I can then return to it later and try to find the words.

When I am drafting content (reports for work, blog posts, emails) I do so without worrying about formatting. At work, I might use dragon naturally speaking and it is easier to do the formatting later. At home, I use Grammarly and that is plain text. When I draft I don’t worry about spelling and grammar – I just write. Formatting and spelling are tasks for reviewing.

Approaches for reviewing

Once the drafting is complete it is time to review the document. This is something I struggle with as I often read what I thought I wrote. Couple this with difficulties spotting homophones (words that sound the same) and letter swaps if they still make a word (from and form) and the result can look like sloppy writing.

Fortunately, there are a number of approaches to combat these problems.

Technology is a massive help here. Normally documents written with voice to text software will have no spelling or word substitution errors. Text to voice software can read back what you have written which highlights errors. Tools like Grammarly offer next level spell checking with word substitution checks and much more. Microfosts one note learning tools has a rich set of tools to help read documents too.

My favourite approach is to get someone else to read the document. A reviewer can often spot things that technology never will. If your work does not clearly explain something technology will not sport that but the second pair of eyes can. This can help overcome the curse of knowledge where something is apparent to you but not the reader. If you are getting someone else to review your work make the first pass with the technology approach so they can focus on the finer aspects.

Top email tip: if the document you are writing is an email use the BLUF technique. BLUF is bottom line up front. Tell the reader in the very first sentence what the email is about. Rather than have them read 8 paragraphs of narrative to see a question at the end put it right at the start. “Approval required for software package xxx for user yyy” as an opening sentence and then all the required information below is easier to read than the other way around.

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