So You Want To Write?
by Russ Westcott
Do you ever think you have something important to say or know how something could be done better and want others to hear you? Your colleagues, friends and relatives tend to tune you out. The only option you see is to capture your thoughts in writing. Once published, you hope others will pay attention.
But, you are intimidated by the mere thought of trying to write and totally believe no one would publish it anyway. To support your fears, you make a mental list of some of your perceived inadequacies:
- You’re inept in the grammar department.
- You can’t spell worth a hoot.
- You have a limited vocabulary.
- You always panicked when a teacher required you to write a composition.
- You don’t write legibly.
- You can’t type.
- You never learned to use a computer for word processing.
- You don’t read much other than parts of the newspaper (sports mostly), some of Quality Progress and work instructions.
- You can’t seem to tell a story that makes sense to listeners.
- You have difficulty describing things you see.
- You have a hard time explaining to someone how to do something.
- You avoid taking any self-help classes (especially in writing) because you think you couldn’t keep up and would be embarrassed.
- You’re not an acknowledged guru, well-known speaker or accomplished practitioner, so who would read your stuff anyway?
That’s an impressive rationale for never attempting to string a few words together to tell the world about what you know. If I hadn’t personally experienced many of the same doubts and lack of skills and still managed to write and get published, I’d say don’t even try. However, before you do that, consider:
- Writing will help as your quality professional career progresses. You will find an ever increasing need to communicate effectively. The present emphasis placed on speaking the language of management is an example. If you expect to have your ideas accepted you’ve got to sell them, and that means communicating both in writing and orally. Jane Campa-nizzi’s new book, excerpted in an article starting on p. 46 of this issue, provides simple to use guidelines for creating letters, reports and procedures.1
- There is a seemingly endless market for how-to information. Remember when you were trying to solve a problem, and you tried many approaches. Finally, you pulled together information from several sources, including your experiences, and solved the problem. Others with similar problems would like to know how you did it.
- Careers are often built on published works that lead to speaking opportunities that lead to consulting assignments, that lead to … .
- In this fast paced world, lifelong-learning is a must. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “teachers often learn more than their students.” I would add that writers often learn more than their readers. Expand your learning from just reading to reading and writing. It will broaden your knowledge base and open up new opportunities to pursue.
- There is tremendous self-satisfaction in seeing your ideas and experiences in print. Getting there is a challenge. But, the day your article appears is a real boost to your self-esteem. You know what it took to gain the courage to write, do the research, get your article accepted and survive the peer reviews and editing. Now your peers, boss, family and you can realize you are an author.
Write What You Know
I’m not suggesting you attempt to write a prize winning novel on your first try. Writing fiction is highly competitive and fraught with disappointments for many. I’m talking about writing about your best quality improvement experience or idea, a tip on how to use a quality tool to help prevent defects or the unique application of a quality concept. Write about what you know and believe others would benefit from knowing.
Here are a few pointers:
- Decide to which audience you want to write.
- Read a few books on how to get published, and talk with others who have been published.
- Choose a publication widely read by the audience you have chosen.
- Closely examine several issues of the chosen publication to get a sense of the style of writing used and how the articles are presented.
- Identify the editor of the section of the publication in which you would like to see your work appear.
- Draft a brief
inquiry to the chosen editor outlining what you propose to write about, why you
feel the topic is important to the readers, why you feel competent in writing about
the subject, the article’s approximate length and your work and educational
background (and any certifications). Include an outline of the article. Ask the
editor to respond as to his or her interest in your developing the article and any
suggestions for handling the content. Be sure this letter or
e-mail is thoroughly checked for comprehension, grammar and spelling by someone other than yourself. Your first impression should be a good one.
Many publications, including Quality Progress, send potential articles out to a panel of experts to get opinions on the value of the proposed article to the publication’s readers. Wait at least four weeks before following up with the editor to find out the status of the review.
Making It Better
If your proposal is rejected, you’ll probably get a reason from the editor. Often a rejection is due to the similarity between what you propose and something that may have been published within the last few years, or the concept has been covered sufficiently by others, or the topic doesn’t fit with the publication’s editorial strategy. Don’t despair; choose another publication and submit your proposal. Or file it, and write about something else that matters to you.
If the proposal concept is accepted but substantial changes are suggested (such as length of article, focus on one idea only, presentation of material, need to add or remove figures and tables), then get busy. Rewrite your proposal and resubmit.
Once an editor has accepted the proposal, he or she will usually be very helpful in guiding you as you finish the article.
While you should attempt to spell correctly and use proper grammar (most word processing programs have a spell-checker and some have a grammar checker), an editor will carefully edit your piece and suggest improvements before it is published. (I find that studying the editor’s changes and suggestions is the way I improve my writing—it’s a tremendous education.)
If you lack typing and word processing skills, there are dozens of inexpensive courses available such as adult education, compact disks and internet courses. Take one or more.
Learn To Write by Reading
Develop a reading habit. Set some measurable objectives to read frequently. Read extensively within your established field, then gradually expand your horizon to other associated fields and then to the developing technologies and theories. Read with four goals in mind:
- Learning (content comprehension).
- Writing style and presentation (delivery process).
- Linking with other writings (cross fertilization of mind).
- Igniting new ideas.
Occasionally read fiction—for entertainment and to see how the author paints a picture of the characters and the environment that pulls you into the story, captures your attention and triggers your emotions. Get and use a library card.
Keep a pen or pencil and a notebook handy as you read. You will find you generate ideas, questions and points you’ll want to remember. Don’t let these get away—write them down.
If your vocabulary is limited, keep a dictionary close by to look up new words. If the dictionary is not handy you’ll probably never remember to look up that word, and as time elapses, you’ll lose the context in which the word was used. A technical glossary may be needed if you’re reading in an unfamiliar field.
How To Start
Joseph G. Voelkel says, “There is little connection between formal education and the ability to come up with good ideas.”2 Here are some ways to start your writing career:
- Provide your local ASQ section’s newsletter with brief write-ups about quality improvements made or the successful use of quality tools.
- Take on a responsibility, such as reporter or editor, for your section’s newsletter.
- Offer to do book and software reviews for Quality Progress. (This is also a good way to build your library as you get to keep the book, and you later learn from the editor’s changes or questions.)
- Write letters to the editors of magazines or newspapers commenting on an article you read.
- Furnish an article on a quality topic to your in-house employee publication.
- Volunteer to participate on a project that will involve writing.
The main point is: Don’t just sit there, write something. Like so many things, it gets much easier the more you do. And speaking of points, getting published is worth points toward your ASQ recertification.
- Jane Campanizzi, Effective Writing for the Quality Professional: Creating Useful Letters, Reports and Procedures, ASQ Quality Press, 2005.
- Joseph G. Voelkel, “What Makes a Six Sigma Project Successful?” Quality Progress, May 2005, pp. 66-68.
RUSSELL T. WESTCOTT, based in Old Saybrook, CT, is a writer, instructor and consultant in the field of quality management. He is an ASQ Fellow and certified quality auditor and manager. Westcott has co-authored five ASQ Quality Press books and recently wrote Simplified Project Management for Quality Profession-als (2004) and updated The Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence Handbook (2006). He is editor of the Thames Valley Section’s newsletter.