Seven principles for effective document development

A lot of good advice exists about principles of good writing – imperatives for sentence structure, and so on – but practical advice about how to handle documents effectively is harder to find. Moreover, we can find scads of how-to help for authors who want to write and publish fiction, but less in that line for writers who work for businesses, and who write as a business. Here are seven useful principles to guide business document development:

1) Think about what you want to write as you plan it. That seems self-evident, but the mechanics of planning – simply preparing a document plan or an outline and getting it approved – replaces adequate thought about the document's contents. Frame your thinking about content with two questions. First, who will consult the document? Second, why will your audience consult it, which is another way to ask, what is your purpose?

2) Do adequate research. You do not need to know everything about a subject to write about it. You only need to know enough to meet the requirements inherent in your purpose. Moreover, if you know your audience well enough to know what information they need, and why they need it, you can identify what you need to know as a writer. Once you get started with research, you can formulate questions about what you want to learn.

3) Organize your material. Your table of contents contains a list of top-level headings, to summarize major pieces of your document. You may think it exists to help your readers, but readers will go first for the search field. For long documents, the table of contents exists especially to help you. During document development, the table of contents displays the document's overall structure for you, and for the whole development team. Use it as your outline. Look for ways to improve your document’s organization as the amount of content grows.

4) Solicit feedback early and often. Writers often don't like to submit work for review prematurely. They think it reflects poorly on their own skills if the work is too unfinished. That's why good working relationships with reviewers are critical. When relationships are strong, reviewers know the purpose of the review, where the document stands in the development process, and relevant business requirements. Questions about writing skills ought not to arise in that context.

5) Avoid the crunch time mentality. It means unnecessary stress for everyone, it can subvert previous good work, and it serves no good purpose. Things come together. The team knows what needs to be done. A well planned document needs to come out on time, but it does not need the crunch time treatment. A reasonable project schedule introduces the document to its public smoothly and happily.

6) Review the finished document in light of the project’s current requirements.Projects and their supporting documents can evolve a lot during the project's life cycle. Check before publication to make sure project goals and document content are still aligned. No one will say you must rewrite a document late in the game – at least no one should expect that – but you do have a chance to make late improvements if the larger project calls for them.

7) Be ready to make corrections and updates after publication. That is the super-advantage of digital publication. With print publications, errors and omissions might stand forever, because you can never withdraw that bound paper document. With digital publication, mistakes disappear, and required updates rapidly appear when you submit the document's next version for publication. Develop a flexible, streamlined publication process that allows for continuous correction.

Apply these general principles or practices to your own requirements and procedures. Company environments, departmental procedures, evolving tools, customer expectations, engineering and marketing requirements: these factors all affect the way writers develop their documents. Nevertheless, basic principles related to preparation of accurate content hold across all these variables. You can improve document quality, and speed of production, if you integrate these general principles into your document development processes.