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Writing with DASH

By: Philip Vassallo
Last updated 1/4/2011

Do you write for a living?  Although you may not be a novelist, playwright, or news reporter, you do write for a living if you spend most of your workday at the computer as your brain directs your fingers to request, respond, report, explain, analyze, evaluate, justify, troubleshoot, summarize, or propose.

Writing on deadline in hectic, distracting environments and challenging situations for demanding people requires you to have a plan, the techniques for executing it quickly, the resolve to see it through completion, and the endurance to do it all over again. I have developed the DASH method (Direction, Acceleration, Strength, and Health) to help you do just that.

The DASH Method
Direction: Hitting the ground running with the end in mind.
Writing does not begin until your fingers start synchronizing with what’s on your mind.  Everything else is wasted time if your intention is to write.  You might be able to go helter-skelter into writing chores for routine cases, but not when the world around you is in chaos, or your own mind is. Getting started without knowing the road ahead runs the risk of omitting essential detail, losing control of your organization, and rambling along in a purposeless monologue.

Direction involves:
—Knowing the road ahead
—Committing an idea to writing
—Devising a document plan
—Using idea generators

Start by answering three big questions:
—Where am I going? (Demands a purpose statement and a specific audience)
—When must I get there? (Commits you to a deadline)
—How will I get there?  (What supporting details do you need to accomplish your goal?)

What if you don’t have the slightest idea of what to write?  Then you should be researching, reading previous documents on the topic, analyzing data, and talking things over with teammates, your managers, clients, or whoever else is in the loop of the document.

Acceleration: Moving quickly through any writing assignment.
Acceleration implies not just speed but also a consistent momentum. You begin drafting, transferring the thoughts from your idea generator onto the screen, getting into a rhythm that keeps you going, moving to the beat of a conversation that seems natural to you, enabling your fingers to move quickly toward the finish line.

Writing at work generally falls into three situations: free, formulaic, and fresh. We’re in free mode when writing simple messages that come to us easily, such as when writing quick e-mails.  Formulaic writing is far more challenging because of its official nature, but it is easy in the sense that we know the details, structure, and format expected of us, for example, when a police officer writes an incident report. Fresh writing demands the most of us. In these cases we might not immediately know the main point or the intended readers. We have to create a plan before drafting because our brain is either overloaded with ideas or a complete blank. The trick is to make many of the documents you write formulaic so that you can always use previously written messages to set the framework or can the language, thereby increasing your speed.

Acceleration involves:
—Preferring speed to precision
—Favoring quantity over quality
—Getting into a writing rhythm
—Maintaining momentum

Strength: Possessing the stamina to get the writing job done.
Strength as a writer means having a strong attitude in approaching writing and a good system when delivering the final product. Writing is as physical an activity as it is a mental one. Intense focus and consistent endurance generate success—physical actions, not mere thoughts. Thus, the key is to develop a system for maximizing creativity and improving efficiency. Being strong mentally, emotionally, and physically is invaluable to good writing.

Strength involves:
—Building a writer’s world by addressing your environmental, mental, physical, and social domains
— Employing 5-minute, 10-minute, and 20-minute fixes (depending on the amount of time available) to your drafts. The 5-minute fix covers the highest-level issues—the big idea—that the reader needs addressed. The 10-minute fix covers the structural level, which helps the reader improve the focus on essential supporting points. The 20-minute fix covers the ornamental, style level, the command-of-language issues that keep readers tuned into your ideas. This is the time to review the three big questions and assess your progress.

Health:  Maintaining productivity throughout your writing life.
Health is what it takes to keep the ball rolling, to maintain a steady flow of writing productivity. Health is a long-range goal, just as our focus on our own health is for the long term. We must ask what we can do to make writing fast at work second nature to us so that we can be a key source of credibility, quality writing, and independent as well as collaborative thinking.

Health involves:
—Keeping your direction, acceleration, and strength going
—Stoking your creative flames
—Dealing with yourself and others in meeting deadlines

To stay healthy as a writer:
1. Develop a thick skin. Everything we write is a reflection of who we are, even if it also represents our organization’s position. People judge us by what we write, presuming to know what we think and how we feel about the positions we take. Too many people take criticism of their writing as criticism of their intellect, lifestyle, convictions, and values. Get over your feelings and see what you can learn from the criticism.

2. Develop a system for constructive criticism. This word of advice applies to your own writing as well as your coworkers’.  Find a way to summarize both the strengths and the weaknesses of the writing and offer specific ways to improve the weaknesses without compromising the strengths.

3. Discover writing time. Get creative. Finding only 10 minutes of extra available writing time (AWT) a day is equivalent to seizing two full hours per month from regular workdays.  his is a great way to minimize the stress of always feeling you’re trapped in a maddening rush from one deadline to another.

4. Handwrite as little as possible. While I encourage all writers to write the way they prefer, I challenge them to prove to me that they can actually write faster by hand.  The computer is there to speed the writing process—use it.

5. Read writers on writing. There are countless books on this subject. A good start would be the contemporary Writers on Writing:  Collected Essays from The New York Times, Volumes I and II (2002–2004).

6. Accept and plan for inevitable emergencies.  Emergencies are a part of life.  You can actually plan for them based on the type of environment you are in.  For example:  determine your peak writing times and mark them in your planner.  Don’t plan a lot of meetings when big documents are due.  Deal with e-mail at set times of the day, rather than react to each one as it comes in.

© 2010 Philip Vassallo.  Excerpted and adapted with permission of the publisher, from How to Write Fast Under Pressure by Philip Vassallo.  Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association  (www.amacombooks.org)

About the Author(s)

Philip Vassallo has 25 years of experience teaching writing in corporate, academic, and government environments.  He is the author of The Art of E-Mail Writing, The Art of On-the-Job Writing, and How to Write Fast Under Pressure.  He developed AMA’s popular seminar “How to Write Fast When It’s Due Yesterday.”