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June 2023

Planning ain’t sexy…but it IS essential

Humbling feedback from a (highly discerning!) participant in a writing workshop I ran recently for a humanitarian organization in London. (The 100% score refers to the fact that every participant rated the day as ‘Excellent’.)

What did I do to deserve such plaudits?

In part, it was the result of convincing the group of the need to plan, and how to do it.

If you don’t plan, you won’t write with impact

Most people don’t plan before they draft. Many pay lip-service to it, but if they do it at all, they do it badly.

I get it: planning your writing is neither sexy nor exciting. It tends to be a cerebral, abstract process with little or no output, other than maybe a MindMap or some random notes. Often under deadline pressure, technical professionals want to crack on with drafting, to feel they’re making progress. I call this an ‘action-illusion’: it makes them feel busy, but it’s neither effective nor efficient.

And like editing, planning is optional.

You don’t have to plan, like you don’t have to edit. But your writing won’t have the same impact. The only thing you must do (obvs!), if you want to produce a written document, is draft.

What are the risks of not planning?

The biggest risk of diving into drafting without planning (‘premature drafting’) is you get halfway through your document and realise your ideas are half-baked, there are gaps in your knowledge, you don’t know your reader as well as you thought or you’ve disappeared down an intellectual rabbit hole. So you throw your draft away and start again. We call this a ‘re-write’ and it’s a disaster: you’ve wasted time, energy and morale, which in turn puts you under even more pressure. Using drafting to clarify your thinking is an abuse of process. Big No-No.

What are the benefits of planning?

If our instinct is to avoid planning, we need to motivate ourselves to do it by reminding ourselves of the benefits. I think there are five big ones:
1. Impact. You engage your reader and hold their attention throughout, because your content is relevant, well-structured and organized.
2. Clarity. Because you’ve done your research, developed your arguments and clarified your ideas. You’ve thought it all through before pen hits paper (or fingers hit keyboard). Head clarity generates page clarity.
3. Effectiveness. Thanks to 1. and 2., you change your reader’s behaviour. Persuasive writing is not about pretty words or clever language: it’s about getting the reader to think, say or act differently.
4. Efficiency. By re-drafting less and avoiding re-writes altogether, we save precious time, writing a stronger document faster.
5. Confidence. When I’ve planned well and know where I’m going with my document, I feel more in control of the process. This relaxes me and gives me confidence to start drafting.

“Great, Scott, we’re convinced of the need to plan. But how do we do it?”

Aha. That’s for next time.

In my next blog post, I’ll share the five planning techniques of my rhetorica® writing system, summarised in the acronym S.T.O.R.M. — Structure. Timing. Objective. Reader. Message.

Till then, good luck with your writing!

The Writing Guy’s tip: time spent planning is never wasted.