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Writing Advice From An Elementary School Cafeteria

Today is my son’s last day of kindergarten. I had lunch with him for the last time of the school year yesterday (I’ve made an effort to do so on a regular basis since last August when I first came up with this post idea). In his cafeteria, there’s a random banner about The Writing Process (the photo to the right). I’m not sure of the banner’s origin, and I’m not sure which grade they start teaching this stuff in (I know it’s not kindergarten), but I know it’s writing advice we could all use to improve our work. I’ve added a few additional thoughts to the outline from the banner (feel free to add your own advice in the comments).

1. Pre-Writing

  • Brainstorm Ideas – grab a piece of paper, head to the whiteboard, or get out your iPad and start getting all your ideas out of your head and into a more manageable format
  • Organize, and Decide on Text Structure – what format will your piece be? How long? Will you have sidebars, pull quotes, or infographics to break up the text? Each format has its own flow and requirements – thinking about the end before you begin is a good idea.
  • Story Maps, Webs, Lists – this is all about the flow of your ideas. How will you present the start, middle, and end of your information? What headings or sub-headings will you use along the way? Think of your writing as a GPS system – what queues will you give the reader along the way so they will know where they are and have a good idea about where you’re taking them?

2. Drafting

  • Create a Rough Draft – you know your topic, you have an idea of how you want the information to flow, now you just need to get it written. Resist the temptation to revise and edit as you go along, just get it all down there for now. If you hit a spot you’re not sure about, just make a note like [THIS WOULD BE A GOOD PLACE FOR A STAT ON X] and keep writing. The goal is to get all the text down – if you stop during the process, it will take you much longer.

3. Revisions

  • Make Changes to Improve Written Work – if you were successful in Step 2, you’ll now have to go through and rewrite sections. I usually read the article and see where I have gaps or need to make things more clear. Sometimes I’ll read it out loud, as it reveals much more.
  • Add/Delete words, Ideas, or Details – I always come back to the timeless Elements of Style advice, “Omit Needless Words” when revising. What can you take out without changing the flow or meaning of your writing? Take it out. Less is more.

4. Editing

Notice that‘ Editing’ comes after ‘Revisions’? I’ve always thought of editing/revising as one step, but it makes sense that you would edit your final draft, not things you may end up cutting out during the revision process. This is a more logical and efficient approach. Don’t worry about editing until your final draft – that makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Proofread for correct:
    • Spelling – don’t trust spell check, if you’re not sure, look it up (you know, in a dictionary)
    • Grammar usage – this one is difficult if you aren’t a grammar whiz – if you’re not, have someone help you with the editing step of the process
    • Capitalizations – this one is really geared towards elementary school, but yes, you should capitalize letters at the beginning of sentences
    • Punctuation – again, geared towards children, but make sure you’re not using commas where there should be periods – or dashes where there should be semicolons (get it?)

5. Publishing

  • Final Draft – if you follow steps 1-4, you should just get here. Any great writer will tell you there’s no such thing as a final draft, you can always improve it, but at some point (usually a deadline), you’ll need to let it go
  • Share – I’m sure this banner is at least five years old. Think of how different the meaning of ‘Share’ is today. In elementary school, they’re suggesting you share your writing with the audience – this is the event that signals the completion of the writing process. Outside of elementary school, in the world we work in each day, it’s still the same. The last thing you do in the writing process is sharing your writing.

Reality Check

Can you follow this process from start to finish when you’re on deadline and want to get a blog post out before lunch? Probably not. Few of us have enough time to plan and construct words the way we’d like to (or the way we did when we were in school). As a perfect example, I didn’t follow this process for the post you’re reading. Would the post have been better if I had? Maybe. Could this process help you write better white papers, press releases, and other marketing content? I think so. Could it help you write better love letters? Maybe not.

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