Wednesday, January 13, 2010

weekly writing coach: S.M.A.R.T. writing

You've heard of S.M.A.R.T. objectives? The acronym that helps employees craft targeted steps toward the organization's goals can help managers who are making assignments to writers--and help writers focus the work so it can be done. Consider these S.M.A.R.T. writing guidelines, whether you're doing the writing or asking a writer to do it:

  1. Make the task and the words specific: If you're assigning, give the writer a clear sense of what you want the written piece to achieve, and what you envision for it. (See point number 2 for more on this, assigners.) If you're the writer, make the language as specific as possible. Concrete terms, rather than overused and bloated language, will make your writing stick. If it's a letter to donors, make sure they know what you're asking for. If a speech, that call to action for the audience should be easy to spot. Don't mince words.
  2. Make the assignment and the writing measurable: Give the writer the number of words or space or time limit she needs to fill, right up front. Share whether you want to see something in progress, or a completely polished, self-edited piece with no errors. And before you assign, figure out the intent: What is this piece going to accomplish for the organization? Make sure the writer knows that, so he can approach your ideal. If you're the writer, don't overshoot the mark, whether it's the word count or the time limit. Use your planning process to put aside extraneous material and sift your content options before you write, to make best use of the time and meet the measures against which the work will be evaluated.
  3. Craft achievable assignments and don't attempt the impossible. I am not making this up: A magazine editor of mine once asked me to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter in 15 minutes about the very first McDonald's being bulldozed. (I actually did it, but that's another story--and I made him go fetch me Shakespeare's sonnets from the library.) Is your assignment full of "this would be nice to do" items and few basics? Think again. Writers: If you think the time or other parameters just won't work, say so--but help to come up with a compromise solution rather than just complain. If there's too much material for one article, edit it into a two-part series. If it won't fit in the publication, add an "extra" on the web. You get the idea.
  4. Will this writing be relevant and get results? Managers and editors need to look for whether a written work hits the mark, reaches the audience and engages them as planned. So poetry in the annual report may not be the right tone. Be sure you've discussed what's relevant with the writer ahead of time. Writers, keep your eye on the ball. The purpose of your written work should determine what goes in and what stays out.
  5. Time frames, aka the deadlines, work both ways. Don't make writing assignments without deadlines--and do let the writer know at which stage and when you want to see work. The first thing a writer should do is map out the available time, building in some space to edit, panic or cope with delays. (See achievable, above.) Take those deadlines seriously, and beat them. That's smart for your career and your blood pressure.

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