Key to clearer writing: Know the big picture before you start

Key to clearer writing: Know the big picture before you start

Know the big picture before you start writing, with image of a jumbled stack of blocks

Understanding the big picture — before you start writing — will help you write better. When you know who and what the document is for, you can put the right pieces in the right place.

With any writing project, there are few things you should know before you start if you want to write better.

And by “better,” I mean that you will be able to pick the right content and give your readers what they are looking for. (Your manager or colleague who has to compile everyone’s inputs into one document will also thank you when you’ve provided everything they need 😉)

I’m going to use examples from the international development field, but if you’re an academic and you’re preparing a journal article: I’ll say a few words at the end of this post on how these tips are relevant to you too.

▶ Why are you writing this? For what purpose?

You need to know why you are writing this document. Who is it for and what are you trying to get them to think or do?

them to do or think? What information do you need to include?

Even if you are being asked to provide inputs to a larger document — a common request in international development organizations — take a moment to check that you understand the big picture. That will help you decide what pieces you need to put in and where.

Before you start writing, be clear about:

  1. Who are you writing for? (Who’s your target audience?)
  2. What do you want them to do/think, etc., as a result of reading your document?
  3. What information do you need to include? (Consider what your audience likely knows, what they are unlikely to know, and what they might be looking for.)

As with most things, write down the answers to these questions. It will help you get better clarity.

▶ What is your main message?

This might seem obvious, but do you know what you are trying to say?

I want to talk about this in more detail in another post. So for now, let’s just say: Know what your main message is.

▶ What’s the logic/story of the piece?

Another big-picture thing to remember is that every type of document has its own logic or flow — or story, if you prefer.

Think about this as taking your reader on a ride, with you in the driver’s seat. You have to know where you’re starting from, what your readers should see on the way, and where they will end up.

What journey do you want to take your reader on? One photo shows a paved, fairly straight road. The other, a winding, switch-back path going up a steep mountainside.

What kind of journey, what kind of road, are you going to take? Which is easier to follow: a clear, paved, straight road or a wildly complex one? (Hint: Aim for the easier road.)

Take these examples:

  • A letter to a donor asking for a project extension
  • A brochure about a training course
  • A web article on some research findings

Each one will have its own logic/flow/story that will depend on the target audience and what you want the reader to think and do after reading the document.

Type of writingWho is the target audience?What do you want the reader to do/think, etc.?
Letter to donor asking for an extension to the project deadlineGovernment officials
  1. Remember what the project was about
  2. Understand what the unexpected circumstance was
  3. Understand the proposed revision; think that it’s a reasonable and good proposal
  4. Approve the request
A brochure about a training coursePotential participants (e.g., young women entrepreneurs in South Sudan)
  1. Recognize that the brochure is for them
  2. Understand “what’s in it for them” — what they’ll get from participating
  3. Understand the details of the course (i.e., dates, location, cost, etc.)
  4. Know how to apply
  5. Apply!
A web article sharing findings of research
  • “General population” — people who are interested in the subject, possibly those who were studied in the research (or people from similar situations)
  • Policymakers
  • Donors
  • Other researchers, academics, practitioners
  1. Understand what the issue is about and why it’s important
  2. Get an idea of the research details (who, where, when, why, how)
  3. Learn the “so what” of the research, the key takeaway
  4. Make use of the findings — something that leads to further action & outcomes
  5. Know how to find more information about the issue, the research, etc.

When you look at the last column, you can see it already outlines your logic/storyline and the information you will need to include.

▶ How does this apply to journal articles?

So say you’re a researcher and you’re preparing your journal submission. How are these tips relevant to you?

You still need to know why you are writing your article.

Type of writingWho is the target audience?What do you want the reader to do/think, etc.?
Journal article
  • Professionals/academics in your field
  • Journal editor
  1. Understand the context/issue
  2. Understand what you have done and found
  3. Agree that your results are significant/useful, etc.
  4. Accept your article for publication, cite your article, etc.

You have to make sure you are putting in the pieces that will help your colleagues understand and appreciate what you’ve studied and its significance. And you will (hopefully) write using plain language 😉

In the case of journal articles, the story/logic is already set: you’ll probably follow the introduction – methodology – results – discussion (IMRaD) format. 1

Even if that structure is already defined for you, you will be able to write better if you understand what each section is for and how it contributes to your overall story.

No need to take just my word for it. For more on how to focus each section in the IMRaD format, see Wiley’s summary of Richard Threlfeld’s tips on ChemistryViews.


Image of colorful wooden blocks orderly stacked on top of each other

No matter what kind of document you’re writing, having a solid understanding of who and what that document is for before you start will help you figure out what pieces to include and where to put them.

This was part of the 1-hour virtual workshop for UNITAR Hiroshima Office staff that I gave in November 2020.

If you would like to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your academic writing project, please send me details via the contact form or email me at info@theclarityeditor.com.

Footnotes

  1. Apparently, that became THE format to use for academic writing in the 1980s.

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