Nine Strategies to Help Startups Improve Writing Productivity

I’m taking a break from writing about vocabulary instruction and ed-tech startup issues today to talk about writing itself. I am by no means an expert on this, but here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned over the past few years about how to write more efficiently.

PW-40-1.jpgWriting is a very important, but often unheralded, part of the startup life. Whether it’s writing blog posts, business plans, startup competition applications, PowerPoint presentations, scripts for demo videos, tweets, cold emails, or the dozens of emails that we send daily to current/prospective employees, partners, investors, customers, etc., being able to write quickly and effectively is critical to your startup’s success.

But at the same time, it is way too easy to procrastinate on writing projects:

  • “I don’t have enough time to finish this right now.”
  • “I need more coffee/quiet/space/energy to work on this.”
  • “I have no idea where to start.”

These are all thoughts that have run through my mind from time to time when I’m faced with a writing task, but procrastinating doesn’t actually help the writing process. At least not for me. So instead, I have a little routine that I use whenever I find myself procrastinating on something important that I need to write (for example, this blog post!). I know this process may sound ridiculously trivial, but for me, getting started is 99 percent of the battle. Having a routine is the key to getting started.

Let’s say that I’m preparing a one-page executive summary for a grant proposal. Here’s my process:

PW-40-3.jpg1. Decide on an appropriate time limit. I usually do at least 30 minutes.

2. Close/minimize all other windows to avoid distractions. Sometimes, I even turn off the Wi-Fi.

3. Hide the phone. I put it in a drawer so that I can’t see it or hear it.

4. Use the restroom. Get water. Get a snack. Take care of all potential “excuses.”

5. Start the timer.

6. Lay out my sandbox: My first step is always to sketch out the parameters that I have to work within. Is there a page limit or word-count limit? Is this single-spaced or double-spaced? Is there a prescribed structure that I need to follow? In the case of a one-page executive summary, I would probably stick with the standard five-paragraph structure: an introduction, three main points (potentially more if I plan to use bullet points instead of paragraphs), and a conclusion.

7. Formulate my arguments: Next, I sketch out all the points that I want to make. At this point in the process, I don’t worry about whether the writing is clear or compelling or grammatically correct or any of that. I just focus on listing out all the arguments and supporting facts that I will need to include. This is usually in the form of a long, messy list.

8. Match my arguments to my sandbox: Now this is where it gets hard, because I usually have a lot more proposed content than is possible given the word/page limit, so I have to decide which points are important enough to make the executive summary. This step takes the longest, because I’m basically creating a very detailed outline for each paragraph. However, the writing itself is still in pretty rough shape at this stage. It’s often not even full sentences, just notes to myself about what I plan to say.

9. The timer goes off! I’m usually not even close to being done, but that’s okay, because I’ve stopped procrastinating and I now have a plan for what I need to write.

PW-40-2.jpgIn my opinion, the key to writing more productively is separating the “figuring out WHAT you want to say” from “figuring out HOW you want to say it.” If I stare at a blank page and have to think about what I want to say, while also thinking about how I can say it in a clear, compelling, concise way that will get my point across, I tend to get stuck. I also don’t want to waste any time writing stuff that doesn’t actually make it into the final product. Instead, I find that if I figure out WHAT I want to say first, in the form of a very detailed outline, the actual writing (the HOW) usually goes much faster.

So, if you’re procrastinating on working on an application for an upcoming business plan competition, I would encourage you to get started today!

Until next time,

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For more information, visit @professorword on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Sebastien Wiertz, Sean MacEntee, Pixelmattic

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