Why your document is a terrible mess

Here’s what went wrong.

You started with a good idea.

Then you showed it to someone. She told you it needed something more. So you added it.

You sent it out for review. Your reviewers all suggested adding and changing things. They’re important and powerful people, so you did.

The technical people insisted you include a more detail explanation of something that wasn’t explained exactly right.

Legal said you needed to add some dodges and disclaimers.

Now your document looks like this:

Photo by Mass. State Police

The reader cannot figure out what you are saying, because what you are saying is hidden beneath a layer of incoherent revisions.

Whose fault is this?

It’s yours.

How not to let this happen

This driver in the photo used to have a truck. Then he loaded everything he could find onto it. Now he is driving a cross between a hedgehog and a kindergarten classroom.

When you are writing a document, start with a clear idea of the desired readers, objective, action, and impression. And be careful what you load onto it.

When you get review comments back, ask these questions:

  • Is adding this comment going to make the document clearer, or cloudier?
  • What made the reviewer make this comment? Can I address it and maintain the clarity of the document?
  • Are there several comments at odds with one another? Can I make a revision that addresses all of those concerns?

Smart writers use review comments as an opportunity to create new clarity in the document. The result remains their work, even as it addresses reviewers’ concerns.

Some people never learn

The Massachusetts State Police pulled over the truck in the picture above last Wednesday. A few days later, the police in Chicopee, Massachusetts, issued a citation to this vehicle:

Chicopee Police Department

Look familiar? It was the same truck, with the same driver. I’m guessing his driver’s license is in danger about now.

Please don’t let this be you.

Maintain control of your documents.

Don’t be a hazard to readers. Keep your load under control.

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  1. All excellent points. I caution your readers not to eschew the advice of their (hopefully vetted) editor, lumping them into the same category as the above reviewers, technical, and legal folk.

    I hope they HAVE an editor.

  2. I have to ask. Which came first, the idea for this blog post, or coming across the photos of the truck?

  3. For decades, my former boss in Homeland Security had served as a journalist in the U.S. Navy, where he had retired as a captain. He would listen to me fret about the endless pressure to incorporate dubious “improvements” by semiliterate managers and “public affairs” experts. Then he would remind me, “In the Navy, we had a saying: ‘The soup isn’t finished until every cook has pissed in it.'”

  4. I couldn’t agree more with the article. There are often pressures to make a document into something that was not intended by the author, for whatever reason. It is always a good idea to take a step back and ask the questions you suggest, but also keep revisiting the question of does this address the target audience and the goal of the document. Often, there are good comments that are not for the document you are writing, and it sometimes helps to suggest these points might be better in a new/different document written in the future.