Scriptoplegia: CPAs suffer from it. (poor writing skills of certified public accountants) (The CPA in Industry)by Stone, Peter F.
It afflicts CPAs and consultants, as well as professional writers. Those more comfortable with numbers than with words are especially vulnerable. Typically, the victim has a specific writing assignment--an important letter, a report, a speech, or an article. A tight deadline intensifies the severity of the disease. At some point, the victim puts pen to paper (or fingers to keys) to begin writing. That's when productive effort stops as the brain recycles these crippling questions.
* What should I say? * Will the boss like it? * What will the reader think of me? * What is the first word of the first sentence?
The victim's mind and fingers freeze in the grip of writer's block. A simple regimen always produces a cure if the victim can be persuaded to follow it.
Step 1: Clarify objectives. We begin our attack on the disease with this question: What do you want to accomplish through your writing? What are your specific goals? Get these down on a piece of paper so you can critique them. Clarifying your goals is essential because you can't focus your effort without goals. Take a hard look at your goals and decide if they are:
* Practical; * Too concrete or too abstract; * Too simple or too complex; * Too narrow or too comprehensive; and * Too many or too few.
Arrange your objectives in order of importance. Then, use a statement of your objectives to get additional input. Ask someone who knows about the project or subject how he or she could improve your goals. Use your statement of objectives to pick the brains of any available expert.
If it's a large writing project, take your refined statement of objectives to the boss and get further suggestions and agreement. This step is politically astute. Omit this step and you'll probably get sandbagged. You are sandbagged when you take the final product to the boss and he or she says with a scowl, "Why did you write it this way?" Prior agreement on objectives prevents this response.
Clarifying your objectives up front helps you write more efficiently. It's a lot easier to achieve objectives when you can see their relationships before you begin writing. Adding an objective late in the assignment usually distorts the structure.
Our treatment begins to take effect. Developing goals has relaxed the patient as he or she senses tangible progress. The patient knows why he or she is writing. What is more, the patient has specific objectives for guidance in the second step.
Step 2: Research. Your objectives are a touchstone for efficient research. They tell you whether your research is productive or merely interesting. Does this data support an objective? If not, move on.
Research sources are--
* Periodicals and reference books; * Material in the files; * Your own observations; and * Anyone who knows about the subject.
Seek information from knowledgeable people. If you have your objectives in front of you, you'll ask intelligent questions. Experts are flattered by intelligent questions and that makes them more responsive. Your interviews will be more efficient and more informative.
At this point, you've copied relevant data, flagged the useful parts of references, and made notes of your observations and interviews. You have loads of data to work with.
The patient shows interest in our treatment. Having developed a statement of objectives, the patient knows why he or she is writing. Because of research guided by objectives, he or she knows what to write. In the third step, the patient learns how to write it.
Step 3: Outlining. Some people think of outlining as a straitjacket for creativity. It's really a framework for creativity. Good writing has good bones. Outlining creates the structure. For the best possible structure, outline before you begin actual writing. Here's why.
Writing isn't free. It costs effort to decide what word comes next and what sentence comes next. As you write, you invest effort to build a chain of words and sentences. If you're unhappy with the organization when you finish writing, you're unlikely to break that chain by revising the organization in detail and wasting the effort you've already invested. Inertia commits you to a suboptimal organization. At best, you'll cut and paste to produce a Frankenstein monster.
Results are different if you organize before you write. Your data is more fragmented and this permits more organizational possibilities. You're more likely to discover the best possible organization by exploring these possibilities through an outline.
Take your objectives, major concepts or ideas, and major topics and play with the sequence. You may want to write them on index cards or slips of paper. It doesn't matter whether you use the classical outline format with Roman numerals or your own outline method. It's the sequence that's important. As you experiment with the sequence, keep in mind the concerns of your readers. What sequence promotes clarity and increases the impact of your message?
After you develop a broad outline, introduce subtopics from your research. At this point, you may find holes in your research. This is the best time to fill any research gaps. Return to Step 2 to flesh out your research. Then finish your outline. With your outline completed, you can use it to gather more input. Show the outline to knowledgeable people and get their opinion. Should topics be added, deleted, resequenced, or changed?
Note that you've called in outside help at each of these steps. This is no accident. If you want the best possible product, you'll pick whatever brains you can find, gratefully accepting all the help you can get. You might even be gracious enough to acknowledge your sources, though this is not required.
The patient is animated and smiling. He or she believes writing is all preparation without performance. In our last step, we must gently dispel this illusion.
Step 4: Write. If you have honestly clarified your objectives, completed your research and prepared your outline, you cleared the hurdle. Use the writing instrument you're most comfortable with: pen and paper, typewriter, dictation recorder, or word processor. You are not obliged to begin with the first word of the first sentence. You can begin writing at the easiest point in your outline. You can do this with confidence because you know you are writing according to a plan. Your writing will fit together no matter where you begin.
All that remains is to paraphrase your research. Writing is merely restating your research according to your outline. If you've done your homework, the pump is primed. Your objectives tell you why you're writing. Your research tells you what to write. Your outline tells you how to write it. Begin at the easiest point in your outline and the words will flow. Don't interrupt that flow with editing or fine tuning. Cover the outline and use up the research before you correct grammar, spelling, or style. If you've completed steps one through three, you'll find that writing is the easiest step of all.
Step 5: Rewrite. Now that the initial writing is complete, let it sit for a day, read, and fine tune the writing. It is this step that will catch most of the flaws and can make the difference between a so-so assignment and a work that would warm the heart of Shakespeare.
The patient has recovered. The assignment is completed and the writer is euphoric. We won't sour that euphoria by mentioning a fee.
When the patient follows our prescribed course, the cure is permanent. Should the patient forget the treatment, there could be a relapse. If symptoms occur again, here is the remedy:
* Clarify objectives; * Research; * Outline; and finally * Write and rewrite.
These steps are a sure cure for writer's block. Follow them and you will never suffer from scriptoplegia.
Peter F. Stone is an Instructional Designer in the National Office of Grant Thornton and communications teacher in the Graduate School of Accountancy at De Paul University. The author gratefully acknowledges the review assistance of Mary Jaspers.
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