by Stephen de Paul, Ph.D.

There was a time when writing training was based on improving grammar and style, to communicate ideas with graceful words. While good writing still has these goals, two recent events have changed the way we train people to write in the modern workplace: the information revolution and the stress upon a quality-first business process.So while the basics of good written communication still hold true, workplace writing has become very much a case of “That was then, and this is now.” New techniques, built on those tried-and-true ones, now help workplace writers improve their effectiveness and their productivity.

Riding the wave of the information revolution

“Writing on computer, today’s workers can
unknowingly suffer hidden pitfalls.”

Rapid changes in the technology of writing have transformed the methods for teaching writing skills in the workplace. The use of information systems such as desktop computers, shared on-line files, and databases has altered our writing process notably.

For one thing, writing in the workplace, especially the technical workplace, has now become a system. Writing on computer, today’s workers can unknowingly suffer hidden pitfalls. Studies have shown that coherence of the text deteriorates when the writer is not aware of the splintering effect that the computer has on writing. In part, these defects occur, in a longer document like a report, because the writer can’t see the whole document, and consequently gets lost within it.

Another negative feature of computer-based writing is what is known as “circular revision”, the seemingly endless series of editing changes. As a consultant assisting organizations in the design of effective documentation processes, I once worked with a group of report-writers who routinely put their documents through no fewer than eight revisions cycles! Part of the problem was that these writers lacked effective criteria for revising documents on line.

In addition, the very subject matter of today’s workplace documents reflects the information revolution. Consider the various topics you write about in letters, memos and reports. If you’re like most people, the vast majority of these topics deal with technical matters such as the operation of equipment, user procedures for software, or inquiries about system bugs or breakdowns. Hence, writing nowadays requires a heightened awareness of the conventions for technical writing.

Technical writers have much to offer us in techniques for clear procedures, technical descriptions, and fast, easy movement through difficult material. Because today’s writing community in both the private and public sector demands it, most of my seminars, even those dealing with traditional “business writing”, routinely possess some component devoted to technical writing conventions.

Making your writing “quality-sensitive”

“At each phase, the writer can troubleshoot
defects early in the writing process, often
before the draft is even written.”

Current quality drives in business include such initiatives as ISO 9000 certification, business process re-engineering, and continuous improvement. Underlying all of these approaches is the common requirement that your work process measure its own efficiency and the effectiveness of its output. If you don’t work inside a measurable process, you never know if you have satisfied clients or customers.

Applied to writing, this awareness of process has particular meaning. A good writing process has four measurable phases: planning, design, drafting, and revision. Unfortunately, many workplace writers spend as much as 80% of their time drafting and as little as 10% planning and designing their documents. Consequently, their documents fail to meet readers’ needs. As well, these writers often spend a long time over a draft that is defect-ridden from the start.

The preferable approach is a “quality-sensitive” process, one that, at each phase, produces an output, a deliverable, whose quality can be measured objectively. Once aware of the process, writers spend 50% or more of their time on planning and design phases, and only 25% of the time drafting. With this shift in effort, overall writing time shrinks, and document quality increases. At each phase, the writer can troubleshoot defects early in the writing process, often before the draft is even written.

The result of these two trends — the change in the writing technology and the need for a quality writing process — is that dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” are givens. More than being letter-perfect, business writing now benefits from specialized, yet easily learned, techniques for communicating in the modern workplace.

Stephen de Paul, Ph.D has worked with technical and administrative writers since 1985. He founded WordTask Information Strategies in 1991 (, and since then has helped clients in the private and public sectors with their communications skills and processes. His clients include Nortel Networks, Cognos Incorporated, MDS Nordion, EDS Systemhouse, and Bell Canada, to name only a few. Since 1980, he has taught part time in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa.