A mapIn the age of short blog posts and tweets, it’s easy to get in the habit of jotting down thoughts and calling it writing. While some bloggers and tweeters can dash off brilliant prose, this is a dangerous and inefficient approach for most of us, especially for those who aren’t ruthless editors of their own writing.

I like the informal, conversational nature of social media and don’t expect it to be always grammatically correct or particularly artful. But informal and conversational don’t mean poorly structured, unclear, and inappropriate. And most writing projects require more than a scrap of information, a clever reference, and a bit of humor. They often have multiple goals (e.g. to inform and entertain the readers while convincing the boss of competence). They require assessing the readers’ knowledge and point of view and choosing the appropriate structure, style, and details. And they require setting out some form of promise – a point to argue or explain, for example – and then delivering on that promise.

Doing this without some serious thinking ahead of time is hard. Many people prefer to write a first draft using little more than instinct, believing they can then turn the draft into great writing. But most of us don’t have the stomach – or the mind – for it. First, there’s the ticking clock screaming, “Move on! There are plenty more projects where that one came from.” Then there’s the barely conscious nag: “It made sense when I wrote it, and it still makes sense.” “I worked hard. No way I’m trashing these two pages of rambling.” “This is really clever. It’s got to stay.”

Taking notes – jotting down ideas without writing sentences or committing to an order – may seem like a waste of time, especially for shorter projects, but it’s by far the fastest and most direct path to producing writing that’s clear, concise, well organized, and appropriate for the intended readers. Notes help you produce a much stronger first draft, making it faster and easier to achieve the level of quality you want or need.

General tips:

  • When taking notes, have fun and be creative. Stop thinking of it as a time-consuming chore.
  • Take time to analyze who your readers are: what they know and how they feel about the topic. This knowledge will guide you as you develop the structure and style for the piece.
  • Work in a non-linear fashion – bubble mapping is useful. This eliminates the tendency to start with the first idea that comes to mind, which is rarely where the reader needs to start. Then use the map to create an outline, selecting the right details in the right order for the readers.