3 steps to pain-free writing


red type writerDuring an Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) seminar I once attended, proposal master Olessia Smotrova-Taylor outlined the “40-20-40” rule.

It’s a great strategy for managing time spent writing a proposal. But this model also applies to almost any type of copywriting you might do.

It’s easy to stress and obsess over the writing phase of our work. But the truth is, it goes more smoothly when the actual writing isn’t where you focus your efforts. Instead, devote time to the front end: outlining, planning—and the back end: reviewing.

Writing should be brief—almost effortless—in comparison. That’s because the bookend stages accomplish most the work for you.

Here’s how to break it down:

    1. Stage One is the research, brainstorming, and planning phase. Here, you’ll gather background information and create a detailed outline for each topic you plan to cover. If you’re writing a proposal, this is also a time for goal-setting: identify must-win features of your prop, and decide how you’ll outshine the competition. About 40% of your time should be spent in this stage.
    2. Stage Two is the actual writing phase. I know it seems counterintuitive, but this is the step where you can relax. Let yourself be imperfect. The goal isn’t to produce polished (or even good) writing. You’re just getting ideas on paper. Remember—you should only spend about 20% of your total project time on this step. If you don’t feel ready to write, further brainstorming is probably needed. Try returning to Stage One. You’ll know you’re ready to write when your ideas are fully, deliberately formed.
    3. In Stage Three, you’ll edit, review, and revise. Check your document for readability, clarity, grammar, and spelling. Bring in a new set of eyes. And be sure to return to the “win themes” you identified while brainstorming. Does the proposal address and build on these themes? Is it focused on the client’s specific needs? Devote another 40% of your time to Stage Three.

If you have a set number of hours in which to write, try actually dividing your time into these three stages. (Remember—you can return to Stage One whenever you want.)

And if you still get stumped by the big W, you’ll at least have a great outline to work from. So give it a rest. Take a break and revisit it later.

Because whether you’re working on a proposal, the next bestselling novel, or a 400-word blog post, great writing takes time. What matters is how you use it.

This post was written by Samantha Enslen in 2013, and has since been updated.

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