Writing the First Draft: Part 2

Posted on: April 8, 2009

In a previous blog, I offered some ideas on writing the first draft of a document. This blog continues that list. And, as in Part 1, my example is a software user guide.

Remember to use your outline as you write the first draft: the outline serves as your roadmap to the content of the document, and how the content is to be organized. The outline enables you to control the first draft, so you stay “on message.”

Here are several more points to keep in mind when writing the first draft:

Have  you planned a chapter that addresses errors or problems that could occur when using the product? Does each error or problem scenario offer diagnostic help and steps to resolve the issue?

In the same user-friendly spirit, if the product is an update, you might consider including a chapter that deals with frequently asked questions. These can significantly improve your customers’ experience with the product, and reduce the number of calls to the customer-service department.

If appropriate for the product, does your document contain exercises? Or perhaps, depending on your overall conceptual design, these and other “how-to” procedures are in a separate document. The point here is that for many products — software for example — it is not enough to provide only concepts and feature information. Most users need real-world examples of  how to use a product to get a job done. Instructions geared to specific objectives help users learn.

Does your document contain useful navigation tools to help your readers find things? Depending on the document and its purpose, these tools might include tabs, headers and footers, a table of contents, a list of figures, a list of tables and an index. And what about appendices? They often provide important reference information that complements the main text.

As you write the first draft, remember to make your text readable. Yes, page appearance matters. A lot. So, how do your pages look? Well-formatted, clean, crisp and inviting to the eye, or crowded and messy? If you can’t tell, aren’t sure, or don’t know enough about page layout, get a reality check by asking others in your organization — and make sure that at least one of them is a graphic artist.

You do make backups of everything you write, don’t you? Don’t place your bets on one hard drive surviving an entire project. Make backups after every work session.

In the same vein, keep records of everything you write. Many computer systems offer version control — if yours does not, you can handle that yourself by how you name files. The point is to maintain an audit trail.

So far so good. If you use some of the ideas I’ve offered about writing the first draft, you should have a solid document that will be ready for the review cycle. Also, a really good first draft will mean less work on subsequent drafts — unless the product is significantly changed while you are writing, subsequent drafts should require only minor revisions and polishing. Write on!


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