33

Establishing Leads

By Marketing Research Team, 3EA
Establishing Leads

In the mineral exploration field, knowing where to start looking is ninety per cent of the problem in placing prospecting crews. A parallel seems to exist in case leads. How does one find situations that will furnish material tosatisfy case needs? Where does one start looking? This process of prospecting for specific situations and organizations willing to cooperate is called establishing leads. The objective is to find case issue ideas and to obtainnames of approachable organizations and contact persons.

There are three types of leads. Unfortunately, case writers, in their discussions of leads, do not distinguish clearly between one type and another. For example, a complete lead, the most desired one, is as follows. "Organization X has this specific problem. Ms. Y, who is in charge there, is willing to talk to a case writer about this situation." The other two types of leads are both incomplete. One identifies a potential case issue but not a potential source of contact in the organization. The other establishes which organizations and managers are willing to have case written but it does not identify the case issue. If a lead is incomplete, the case writer's first task is to make it complete. In the following quotes, the word "lead" is used in the broadest possible sense and may refer to any of the three types. The content generally makes clear which kind of lead is being discussed.

It might be expected that some practitioners find one approach to establishing leads more rewarding than another. Ken thinks this is an important stage and he takes care in sorting through various leads.

Ken:
One of the most difficult parts is finding situations which lend themselves to the making of a good case. I'm a labour arbitrator as well as a teacher and I participate in about one arbitration a week. I'm in the field quite a bit and this gives me a lot of contact with situations that are arising. I get a number of leads and cases this way, but every arbitration case doesn't turn into a case that's good for teaching. Of course I need cases to cover specific areas too. I look at the B.N.A. arbitration reports and other problems in industry which come across my desk and follow these up. Once I find a situation, I usually don't have too much trouble writing a case that will be good for classroom discussion. This results from a careful section of the leads as well as the dynamics of the labour relations field.

Jerry talks about the emphasis he places on getting good leads and making needs known to others:

Jerry:
Having decided what areas we want to cover in the labour relations course, we are on the lookout for leads to fill the gaps where cases are lacking, e.g., hot areas in industrial relations are problems associated with mergers, conglomerates, and discrimination. That means letting the faculty here and elsewhere and other contacts know what we want.

Ian found that company personnel with whom he has already been involved are valuable sources of case leads:

Ian:
One of our most valuable sources proved to be companies where we were already writing cases. The president might be reminded of similar situations elsewhere and might even arrange introductions for us to follow-up. This was fine because I never like initiating cold calls.

Two research assistants discuss their experiences which lead to different ways of developing contacts:

Len: In my advertising cases, the contacts developed mainly from reading magazine articles on what advertising agencies were doing with different companies. If something looked interesting, I'd write the person with a specific proposal, saying, "The interesting things you are doing also seem to fit our needs." I then elaborate on what I'm doing and what I require.

Gordon:
In the policy area, the contacts you can make often determine what industry is approached. For instance, a representative from Beach Hauser happened to be here to do some recruiting and to establish their name. So my supervisor said, "Wouldn't this industry be a great idea?" He found a man working for an advertising agency who was an MBA here, and used him as a way to get to one of the main players. They seemed interested, so we decided what other companies we needed. Another company's board chairman was a former professor here and he was agreeable, but the company was a little small, being about number twenty in the industry. Then my supervisor discovered that the son of the chairman of the board of the fourth largest firm in the industry was at this school. He talked him, and then his father, into allowing case research to be done on this company. So the supervisor's interests and contacts become key factors in determining where we start and what is accomplished.

Don talks about the importance of pre-selecting contacts, regardless of whether the case writing process takes place in North America or across the Atlantic:

Don:
The British and Europeans always as, "How do you ever get into these companies, what with the traditional secrecy and so on?" The batting average is much the same on both sides of the ocean because of our pre-selection process. I very seldom write or go on a cold call. We deal with friends and my business school graduates. We choose people who know what we're doing. They are usually very cooperative. I suspect that the release average is a lot higher with people like this.

When I go to Europe, I take the alumni list of the Harvard School with me to discover who is there and who I might know. I drop them a note and they are usually overjoyed to hear from me after fifteen years. Once we get together, the door is opened. There is a bit of grapevine at work among people from various courses. As more people take courses, more doors open. The only time we had difficulty was when we started one particular industry series. We wanted to study one industry where we had some very good contacts. We had no trouble with cases from their companies and they introduced us to some of their industry friends who were able to give us cases after some awkward initial periods. One key company was critical to the industry, as it controlled about 40% of the retail sales. We tried to get in, but there was no hope. That's where we fell down, and that's the problem with starting with the concept of writing a series on an industry, inevitably, you have to go to somebody who isn't part of the network.

We had some odd experiences. I wrote to a man whose name was suggested by another president and got the funniest letter back. I really should have saved it. It said: "I'm not really interested in having any young men run my business. I am doing very well. I don't quite understand why, or how, but I am sure that if I had known too much it wouldn't have stayed that way. I've never had consultants and I don't want any."

How do you respond to a letter like that? I replied that he had misunderstood our role. "We didn't come here to tell you how to run your business, we came to learn how you had made such a success of it."

I think this really melted him. He invited us over. My research assistant and I spent only half a day there. We never had to go back for additional information. The package was sent in and released. It was the first of the whole series and there was never a whisper of trouble.

Neville would rather talk personally with business contacts than search through magazine articles:

Neville:
It is easy to select contacts. Most of the time, they select you. People you know hear about things. When I'm in the business world, one of my favourite question is, "Of all your competitors, who has the best managed sales force?" There's your lead.

Another way is to ask people who come here to recruit grads in sales management. Such associations are fruitful. The reason you occasionally have to seek out a company is because of special industry characteristics that you want in the course. For example, heavy equipment or digital controllers.

Mike:
You say that looking through articles is not a very successful way of getting leads?

Neville:
Yes, all you get is a public relation reaction-causes of 35 pages saying how marvellous we are and no problem. The best cases result when you ask a company. "What's really troublesome? If you waved a magic wand over the organization, what problems would you solve?" Then you have a case, because you can now ask a student, "What would you do?"

However, Bob thinks that articles and publications are a valuable source of leads:

Bob: One of the best ways is to keep up with publications of all kinds and discover people who are making certain kinds of decisions or moves. I'm currently involved in strategic or policy type courses, concerned with questions or issues in companies making major decisions for changing direction. I might say to my research assistant, "Take Women's Wear for the past six months and clip every large store that had a major policy issue reported. Then we'll sort out those worthwhile."

Les nicely sums up this lead phase of case writing:

Les:
There is only one secret to this whole process - you've got to think cases. Once you put yourself in the mood, you will find them all over the place, but if you're not thinking about them, you'll miss umpteen opportunities.

CONCLUSION

Identifying the contact or source of information can be external, internal or a combination process. Exhibit 4-1 illustrates the various lead alternatives.

Exhibit 4-2 illustrates the range of case issue interest the case writer may have and whether or not the case writer knows if desired issues are available in participating organizations. The case writer's task in establishing leads includes the four types: rifle, drilling, prospecting and shot-gun.

It is also apparent from the discussions that the case planning phase often dictates the approach in identifying leads. If case planning indicates a specific need, the case writer might use the "rifle" approach by utilizing specific sources available. For example, I am looking for very specific material to be used in a new course on technological change.

Obviously, shooting blind or making cold contacts increases the likelihood that the case may not materialize. It is interesting, therefore, to see how resources like students (past and present), consulting contacts, and colleagues are used to improve lead quality. Presumably, a better lead results in easier case writing. Lastly, as some put it aptly, "You must think cases."

Having isolated the lead, the case writer now faces the task of following through. This normally requires making the initial contact.

The writing process

Neville:
Marty taught me how to write cases and, boy, he had a lot of good ideas. It takes two to three days to write a first draft. I have all sorts of notes. I sit here with scissors and I make up stacks of notes based on my outline on the blackboard in my office.

Then I take the stacks, with bits and pieces of paper arranged in sequential order, and I sit at the dictating machine. My secretary is instructed to put each dictated paragraph on a separate page. Now I've got fifty to sixty paragraphs and the first thing I do is tighten up each one. I make sure each paragraph makes sense and is grammatically correct. As I go through, I find places where I've repeated myself or where there are big gaps in the information, so I fill this in. then its retyped and the question becomes: "How do I organize it?"

I work on the first and last paragraphs. The first paragraph tells the student what the case is all about, what the student is supposed to do with it, what the decision is, and what the alternatives are. There is no sense playing games with students. Their time is limited and even though data in the real world are highly disorganized and random, an executive has a way of organizing the environment that he or she has built him or herself, whereas the student doesn't. So to give the student a fair shake and a decent decision, you have to organize it; no magic numbers in the footnotes etc. - that is unfair. Educationally it gets you nowhere. Highly complex cases really don't do that much for the student.

If you can't say it in ten to fifteen pages, it's probably not worth saying.

Neville's comments range over many aspects related to the case writing activity. In this chapter, the focus is on the writing phase. Once the data have been collected, they need to be put in to an acceptable case form. This involves three major considerations. What is the content? In what form should it be presented? And how is the task accomplished?

Content

What information should a case contain? How much information should be included? What should be excluded? And where should be case end?

Case writers often terminate cases when they run out of data. This is sometimes not advisable because data may include the solution actually employed. So, the cut-off point often comes sooner at a more appropriate dramatic place. The student is consequently positioned at a point requiring immediate action.

Ken,a professor of industrial relations, also comments on this:

Ken:
I like to bring students up to the point where the company is in an awful mess,and that's where I stop the case. We risk losing certain things good for discussion, but if we don't stop allthis point, the student willnot be faced with the most important decision that has to be made.

According to Lawrence:

Occasionally, the writer may disclose in the case the solution or the actual decisions taken by the company. There is no consensus as to whether is a wise practice. Most writers cut the cases short of the solution and leave the analysis and decision-making aspect to the student.

The inclusion of guide questions at the start or end of cases is another area of debate. Sometimes questions are included in order to direct the class discussion. This may improve the discussion with better utilization of time,but it also has a tendency to narrow the preparation scope of the student.

The reality of the situation may be distorted by questions.Therefore,it is up to the writer's discretion whether to include questions. Many believe that this decision depends on the experience of the reader with cases. In actual practice, questions appear frequently in case texts. Loose-leaf seldom have questions attached. Each instructor usually devises his or her questions to meet his or her special needs. It is conventional practice to assign questions.

How much materialdoes one present in a case? This is difficult to answer. Much depends up on the type of case that is written. There are simple cases that have only one issue.These can be handled relatively easily and without too much elaboration. At other times,the cases may be complex. The issues may be numerous or not evident. The case may be lengthy, with the intention of making it difficult for the reader to grasp the major point. This forces the students to sift through a morass of information to determine what is relevant. A case developed for role playing will be presented substantially differently from on designed to test the students is selecting relevant information from a large amount of data. Therefore, the way the case is writtendepends on the case writer's purpose. The case may be for an elementary course and thus simple It may be for an advanced course, which usually means a more complex issue(s). There is no fast and easy rule. It is at the discretion of the writer.

Neville addresses the other extreme. Instead of adding useless data, he may delete useful information.

Neville:
Sometimes, It's best to leave out a key piece of information. This is not bad. The student thinks about the desirability of having it. Most of the time, you canwrite cases pretty honesty. Occasionally, however, you see an opportunity educationally in the classroom to give it a little twist.

Overtime cases have been getting longer.The content is becoming more complex and the descriptions more elaborate.

Casesmust be long enough to describe the situation in real life terms. At the same time, the case writer must be selective because all the facts observed cannot be included.

Paul Lawrence outlines a few useful generalizations about this selection process;

Nevertheless, a few rules of the thumb follow. Most cases also present something of the background of the people, the problem and the company. It is usually wise to include in the finished case all the available first-hand data about the key present event. These would include the available record of what people do and say and think. Background data may be used more sparingly than facts describing the current situation. The most useful background material gives a student some ideas about the thinking of the participants. There is little need for a recital of past jobs, formaleducation, and other inactive facts. The case writer has to decide how much background material is needed to give setting and context without giving so much as to block the students from ever coming to grips with the problems posed by present events.

Presentation

A different aspect from content is the presentation of the data. What language should be used? -formal academic, or a "tell-it-as-it-is"style? Quotes, pictures, exhibits, paraphrases, all have their usefulness. In what order should be the information be presented?

James W Culliton explains the style of presenting a case. He gives many suggestions in this passage:

Case writing is fundamentally no different from other writing. The fact that it is primarily reportorial suggests various techniques and dictates at times the proper order of presentation.

One essential requirement is that case must be in thoroughly good English and free from defects in organization and errors in grammar,punctuation,or the use of words.This requirement is particularly necessary in view of the fact that so many casesnow go directly into mimeographed case books.For this reason, most professors have found it desirable to have all new cases edited by a member of the staff trained in that type of workbefore they are copied in final form. The editing may be done by the professor's secretary or by any other competent editor who is available. Some professors have found that reading a case aloud with the research assistant speeds effective editing.

One should be careful with word choice. Excerpts from an article by Hugh Nugent point out some common mistakes:

The sentence in question reads as follows, "Nevertheless, it would seem probable that reorganization would permit a significant reduction on total expenditure involved." A close analysis of this sentence reveals that it contains a quintuple hedge.

A direct statement of the proportion would have been:

"Reorganization will save money." Watch how the inserts of the hedge dilutes the certainly of the statement.

One final way of destroying commitment to meaning in a sentence is to put verbs in the passive rather than the active voice. This has the twofold effect of making the sentence run against the natural flow of the English language, and of removing responsibility from any active agent in the sentence. "People suffer rather than do in the passive voice."

An excellent reference book for style is the Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr.

Culliton describes the accepted norms:

GENERALLY ACCEPTED PROCEDURES

  1. Use of the Past Tense:
    Ordinarily, cases at the School are written in the past tense. This device is used in order to protect the company from which the information was received; it forestalls any implication that the facts as of one day will be the same at a later date. Experience at the School indicates, too, that cases written in the past tense retain their usefulness for teaching longer than cases in the present tense. A little practice develops techniques of using the past tense without making all the facts seem dead. If the past tense is not used, it may be necessary to indicate that the case was written as of the specified date.
  2. Tabulations:
    Tabulate all data that can be presented in table form.
  3. Exhibits and Appendices:
    Tables, charts, balance sheets, forms and maps may be used as exhibits in cases. These should be numbered consecutively in the order of their appearance in the case. Specific reference to the sources of the material should be given at the bottom of each exhibit. Material not an integral part of the case, or too long for inclusion in the text, may be given in appendices. Appendices are usually designated by letter.
  4. Checking Figures and Disguises
    All figures included in a case must be checked for accuracy.

    To facilitate checking, make it a practice to record complete and specific source references. (For instance, include exact page numbers and other details which will enable the person checking your work to refer immediately to the same source that you used). Source references noted on work sheets and rough drafts frequently should be more comprehensive than those which will appear in published version.

    It is essential that any disguise be completely executed so that the case is fully consistent.
  5. Facts:
    All relevant facts that are available ought to be included in most instances, each case should present only the plans which the company reviewed for the particular situation. When certain facts are not available, it is often significant to say so.

    Research assistants are essentially reporters of facts. Opinions of the writer should not be included in the case. Opinions of others should be labelled as such and should not be reported as facts.

    Recalling his or her own experience as a student, the research assistant should scrutinize his or her cases carefully to be sure that students will have no difficulty in understanding the situation.
  6. Decisions:
    Inclusion of decisions actually arrived at by company executives frequently adds interest to a case and helps crystallize the student's thinking. Whether decisions are to be included, however, depends largely on the use to which the case is to be put.
  7. Published Sources:
    When an entire case, written under the real name of the company, is based on published material such as the annual reports of a company or its financial statements as reported in Moody's, a footnote from the case title should indicate the source.
  8. Reprinting:
    When substantial quotations are used, permission to reprint must be secured from the publisher. Exact indication of the source, including title of article, as well as author, publisher and date of publication, must accompany each quotation
  9. Newspaper articles, not syndicated, and advertisements may be used without the formality of securing a release from the company, provided due credit is given to the source from which the material is taken.
  10. Use of "Notes of instructor":
    Additional information that is not essential to the case but that the professor may want to offer the student as background material may be written up in the form of notes and filed with the instructor's copy of the case. All information pertaining to the particular situation and all the facts which are to be used in the discussion of the case should, of course, be included in the case so that the students will not feel that the teacher has an unfair advantage over them as far as facts are concerned.

Miscellaneous
It is a good practice to put an identifying title, your name, and the date on all work sheets, notes, and the like.

Towl condensed one of McNair's discussions and shows the different structures that can be possible in presenting case:

I think that a case needs to be recognized as having certain structure, an anatomy of its own, in fact, you might say, a series of structures. There is, for one thing, a time structure - a case takes place, a business situation takes place, in time. And there must be a fairly clear perception on the part of the student of what the time sequence was of the events taking place in the case. And you may organize a case around that. On the other hand, you may find it necessary to break the time sequence at certain points in order to bring into the case some other considerations. But you need to be fairly clear as to what was the sequence of the events, what was the time structure of the case. From the standpoint of developing interest, you may want to take, as a point of initiation for a case, a late event in the actual sequence because that may serve to heighten the interest - how the problem first came to light, so to speak. Then you may manage through a flashback to show the early origins of the situation and build this up. But you always have to keep in mind the time structure of the case, and make sure that it is sufficiently clear to the reader.

The case, I think, in addition to a time structure, needs to have a narrative structure - not only is there a time sequence of events, but the things that happened and the circumstances of their happening must be narrated in some kind of understandable pattern. Where did they begin, what led to what, and so on. In other words, there is a flow of a story.

And clearly, there has to be one or more expository structures in the case. There is the situation itself which the writer must make clear to the student, remembering that the student will not have the perception that the professor has. Thus, the case writer may have to spell the thing out somewhat more specifically for the student to grasp, than would be necessary for the group of business executives who participated in the situation. Clearly, also, there is an expository structure with reference to the company itself. Something must be said about the company context in which the action takes place. The student needs to have a good picture of the company. In addition, there is often an expository or descriptive job that needs to be done with reference to the industry depending of course on the particular case. And then, not infrequently, there is a job that needs to be done on the technological background.

But I should come back again and stress perhaps most of all the importance of what I would call the plot structure of a case. The need for that was indicated earlier from the standpoint of developing interest and promoting the willing suspension of disbelief. For the case to be a really living thing and for the student to forget that it's artificial, there must be drama, there must be suspense. The skilful case writer will build this up. For many years, we have used the shorthand expression that a case must have an issue. There must be a question of what should somebody do, what should somebody have done, who is to blame for the situation, what is the best decision to be made under the circumstances. A case isn't just a bland narrative where there's no question or issue. A case involves a problem of some kind, and the more you can build that up, the more you can develop the interest or the drama of that clash or ideas or maybe a clash of people, the better the chance of getting the kind of student commitment that makes for a good classroom discussion.

So I think the case has a number of structures. It has a time structure, it has a narrative structure, it has several expositional structures, it has a plot structure. And frequently, you have to interweave these in order to get the best results. You may start out with some incident which indicates the beginning of some kind of a situation, or perhaps the precipitating circumstance that brings the thing first to the attention of some executive. You may want to drop back from that in time to what has occurred earlier, or you may at that point want to go to the exposition of the type of company or industry, and so forth. These several structures usually need to be interwoven. This makes the development of a case. I think, a serious problem in literarily composition. But unfortunately, I don't think there are any textbooks written on this particular kind of composition.

Then there are what might be called literary problems and devices. I have mentioned a couple of times that the case is not just a photographic slice of life. A case represents selection from a situation: it represents selection by the case writer. Now this poses a problem; this makes it necessary, I think, for a case writer not to take just one man's view of a business situation, but to get as many different slants as he can from as many of the company executives as possible. But still the writer can't avoid coming back to the feeling: "I'm the case writer who is trying to make a selection of facts from this situation, and to fit these into this rather complex type of literary composition which we call a case, and I've to be very careful not to get my own personal feelings and judgments into the situation." Some people, in order to get around this particular difficulty, have used the device which you've probably seen in some cases of bringing the case writer himself into the case. Personally, I have never liked this, because I think this device runs counter to the student's feeling of reality about the case. As soon as the case writer himself comes into it, you immediately are reminded that this is an artificial piece of work; you lose that sense of the reality of the situation. Yet it is true that the case writer does play a very important part by his selection of the things that he includes in the case. Sometimes I think it is not stretching it too far to say that one of the questions here is; how much literary license do you have in writing a case? To what extent is it legitimate to heighten interest by the process of selection? How far can you go? I think that sometimes it may be within the bounds of permissibility for a case writer to masquerade, perhaps as a consultant, or a friendly adviser, in the picture. That doesn't destroy the illusion, and yet it does indicate that somebody picture. That doesn't destroy the illusion, and yet it does indicate that somebody is bringing in ideas that aren't necessarily those stated by the executives in the company.

Culbertson notes that it is important to write cases in an objective manner in order to keep the case's authenticity. Several techniques are mentioned for preserving this objectivity and clarifying the situation. The most widely used are:

  1. Use direct quotes from documents or interviews.
  2. Identify from whom the source of date comes
  3. Guard against any bias or sympathies.
  4. Use a language which is between dull reporting and one which incites strong emotion, e.g., use adjectives sparingly.
  5. Use as much factual information as possible.
  6. Report the case in the chronological order in which it occurred. Keep it consistent.
  7. Include not only the events which happened, but also how the people involved perceived them.
  8. Sometimes use commentary by the case writer at the beginning or ending of the case. This is employed in order to point out some of the basic issues or questions for the students to analyse.

Susan finds the writing process highly challenging:

Susan:
As a case writer I find I have lots of different audiences: the people in the organization, the professor, the students and other instructors. I have to write really carefully recognizing the sensitivities of each of those groups. I believe the case writer shapes the learning process of the students, because you have out so much of the information you gather. It is your personal selection and your personal values that shine through, and you have to be very careful about your personal biases and soapboxes.

A number of writers like a standard case format:

Keith:
I work with the old newspaper formula. Start out with a paragraph that states the issues and interests the student. Open up the case with the broadest questions on company background and particular department, and then face the specific situation. Close with a full development of the specific issues. I write every case with this basic structure in mind, I like to include conversation whenever possible to put some life into the case.

Teaching and Other Aids to Increase Student Interest

Classroom reception of a case may be improved substantially by the use of effective teaching aids. In the case itself, quotes, exhibits and pictures can be included to add realism and life to the situation. Some additional devices can be added to these conventional ones. They may not be reproducible in print, but can be used along with the printed material or as a substitute. Films and video tapes can be very useful. These need not be technically perfect. Samples of the company product line fall into the same category. If these can be passed around in class, they add immensely to student interest. A brief audio or video tape of the chief decision maker in the case, or containing a conversation between principals, may be readily put on a small cassette. Each of these items can be obtained at minimum cost during the data collection stage.

If it is possible to arrange a field trip to the contributing organization itself, this is ideal. Sometimes a similar organization can be substituted if the prime interest is in the process. An executive may be invited to class.

Student interest may be stimulated in variety of ways. The case writer who is aware of the opportunities and the need for exciting classroom experiences will have no trouble finding ways and means of accomplishing this task effectively.

The Process

The process of writing cases varies considerably from person to person. Neville described his modus operandi in the opening paragraphs of the chapter. When case writers are employed, the situation is somewhat different.

Culliton starts with a few helpful hints:

ORGANIZING YOUR MATERIAL


  1. If you have not already done it in the field, write everything down.
  2. Prepare an outline of the case, and use it in writing.

SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING

Statement of the issue:
it is frequently helpful to start a case with a statement of the issue. For some years, this was the accepted practice of the School. With the more widespread use of "diagnostic" cases, starting each case with a clear-cut issue became more difficult. Nevertheless, it is still effective if the first paragraph sets forth a lead to the theme of the case, an issue (real or nominal), or some other "excuse" for writing the case, against which the rest of the material can be interpreted. Many cases, for instance, include an account of the founding and development of a company. Such an account, however, is given not merely for the sake of history, but rather for background to the analysis of the current situation. If the first paragraph gives a clue to the use to which such historical material should be put, the case not only is more effective but also carries much more reader interest. No matter what outline is adopted, it is well to remember that most cases, to be useful in teaching, should deal with an administrative situation and should not be memoranda merely relating into resting facts.

Joan comments about her difficulties in working:

Joan:
I used to think that my writing was fairly easy and clear. I remember thinking as a student: "what kind of person would write that case - it's terrible." Now I am starting to appreciate the difficulty of getting it down within a certain length and in readable form. If I am not familiar with an organization orindustry, I find it tough to get own to that first draft. I'll write, leave it for a day, pick it up again and try to look at it from a student point of view. And, then, pushing myself to do that final polishing is really rough. That's one reason why I like to have at least three different cases on the go, so that I can switch activities and not waste time during these incubation periods.

M. Munter explains her three stage plan for writing and offers some hints for avoiding writer's block.

Stage 1: Prewriting

The first step in an effective composing process is not to start immediately generating a page full of perfect words. Instead, think of the prewriting stage as being just what its name implies: "before writing." During this stage, focus on your assignment (from, say, your boss at work or your teacher at school), and gather information.

The point in the chapter is not to go into the specifics of gathering information from outside sources. Instead, the point here is that you should gather together all your information before you start writing.

Once you have your information, thinkit through, arrive at a conclusion, and sketch an idea. Don't start writing without an idea there. You risk wasting your time and confidence, and losing your reader's comprehension. Of course, your ideas may change as you write; naturally, you may change your structure as you go along. But to start writing without any idea chart is to invite disaster.

Stage 2: Drafting

Perhaps the most important thing to remember as you are drafting is to adopt a drafting attitude. This attitude means not allowing yourself to be a perfectionist as you draft. Instead, think of drafting as a creative gushing forth of ideas. You will be analytical and even picky during the editing stage, but you should stifle perfectionism as you draft. Just get it down on paper.

To maintain that attitude, avoid editing during the draft stage. Do not worry about specific problems. As examples, if you cannot think of a word, leave a blank space; if you cannot decide between two words, write them both down; if something sounds awkward, leave it and go on. Circle or put a check mark in the margin for these unclear or awkward sections; you will come back to them later.

With that drafting attitude in mind, get your draft down on paper; handwriting, typing or word processing, or dictating. You will save time if you avoid handwriting; you write in longhand at about fifteen words per minute; you can type at twenty to sixty words per minute, you can dictate at sixty-five to ninety-five words per minute. Furthermore, you will find it much easier to spot and correct errors later if you can edit from a typed copy. Your draft copy should be typed on one side only, double or triple-spaced, with wide margins.

Stage 3: Editing

An important hint for effective editing is to schedule a time gap between the drafting and editing stages. I can guarantee that you will do a better job of editing if you leave sometime between the two stages. For important or complicated writing, separate the two stages by several days, or at least overnight. If you are extremely busy of if you are writing on less important, more routine matters, leave a shorter time gap. For example, you might give yourself a few hours, a lunch break, or even a five to ten minute coffee break.

Only after this time gap should you embark on the final step in the writing process. When you start editing, don't immediately begin to agonize over detailed issues such as commas and precise words. Instead, save yourself time by analysing the larger issues first so you can cut or modify sections before you have wasted time perfecting them. These larger issues include the following questions: Does this document accomplish my communication objective? Does it emphasize my man idea(s)? Is it structured persuasively? Should it be in written form at all? Then, and only then, should you edit the document, paragraphs, sentences, words, and punctuation, as we shall be discussing in the next several chapters. Again, don't fine-tune your writing until you have checked for overall strategy.

Avoiding Writer's Block

If you use these techniques for drafting and editing, you should find that you can alleviate problems with writer's block. Writing is difficult work.

No formula, alas, will free you from that work. However, here are some suggestions to help you avoid the most common pitfalls in the writing process

  1. Remember that it is a myth that writing is easily inspired in everyone else. Writing is a complex process involving various stages, not a one-step magic formula.
  2. Schedule your time. You don't have to write in one session. Plan so you canseparate your prewriting, drafting, and editing stages. Allow a gap of days or at least one night between drafting and editing for important and complicated documents; allow hour-long lunch, or coffee breaks for less important or routine documents.
  3. Separate the thinking process from the ordering process. Clear thinking and clear writing are related, but they are not identical. Order your ideas appropriately for your reader; don't just write in the order that the ideas occurred to you.
  4. Separate the ordering process from the drafting process. Never start to write without an idea chart. Order your ideas before you start to put them into paragraph and sentence form.
  5. Separate the drafting process from the editing process. Do not try to edit during the drafting stage. During the drafting stage, let your creativity flow. Do not worry about specifics; you can come back and fix them later. Do not necessarily write straight through from beginning to end. Do not try to "finish one thing at a time"; you can revise later.
  6. If you bog down during the editing stage, try: imagining you are talking to your reader; free-writing for a while; or talking into a tape recorder, typing that, and revising it.
  7. Edit a typed copy. Whether you use a typewriter, word process or dictation, get a typed copy. Use one side only, double or triple-spaced. Typed copies are much easier to correct.
  8. Move sections around if necessary. Do not waste time rewriting or retyping sections that do not need to be changed. Instead, move them around - by machine if you're using a word processor, with scissors and tape if you're using paper.
  9. Expect to rethink. Although we have been discussing the different stages in the writing process separately, in fact the stages are not completely separate; as a writer, you do not actually move in lockstep from generating information to drafting to editing.

Margot Northey suggests that effective writing is simple and straightforward. Clear words, sentences and paragraphs avoid confusion.

Choosing Clear Wording

In selecting words, it's worth remembering the difference between the dictionary meaning of a word (its denotation) and the associate meanings or range of suggestions called up by the word (its connotations). The words listed as synonyms in a thesaurus do not always mean the same thing. Some words have positive or negative associations, while others are more neutral.

Use Everyday, Plain Words

The most common words in the English language are usually the oldest. The words children first learn are derived from the same Anglo-Saxon stock used since before 1000 A.D. Whether we recognize the reason or not, we usually choose these words for our conversations, since they seem most natural. As well, plain English words are generally short - another good reason to use them.

Be Specific

To avoid having readers second guess you, be as exact in your words as you can. You can often replace vague, "all-purpose" verbs like involve, concern and affect, with ones that are not as open to interpretation. As well, use specific names, dates, times and amounts to increase the clarity of a message. Admittedly, when you are referring to a group, it may be impractical to list each member or item, but when you have a choice, be specific rather than general.

Avoid Jargon

Most areas of knowledge have a terminology which helps experts communicate with each other. The special terms allow them to say quickly and precisely what they mean, without having to resort each time to definitions or explanations. Scientists especially rely upon technical terms, as when a doctor describes a patient's medical condition to a colleague. The difficulty comes when people unnecessarily use jargon - complicated or unfamiliar terms - perhaps in an attempt to appear scientific or sophisticated. Rather than clarifying an issue they obscure it. The teacher who wrote the following bit or jargon may not have been trying to appear sophisticated, but certainly was obscuring the message:

Harry often exhibits overtly aggressive tendencies in interactive situations with his peer group, especially in extra-curricular activities.

What the teacher could have said was:

Harry often fights with his classmates, especially outside the classroom.

People in business sometimes make the mistake of cluttering their writing with jargon to demonstrate their "insider knowledge" instead of following this approach, remember that the brightest minds are those that can simplify a complicated issue, not complicate simple one. The guideline is straightforward: use specialized terms if they are a kind of short form, making communication easier. Avoid jargon when plain English will do.

Writing Clear Sentences

Writing clear sentences is a matter not only of choosing plain, clear wording, but also of having correct grammar and punctuation. What "correct" means is sometimes open to dispute. Acceptable grammar and punctuation are really conventions or customary practices; the way educated people speak and write over a period of years and a wide area becomes known as "standard" English or "the King's English." Although the standard gradually changes and will continue to change, following a standard useful in business writing, since it enables people from a variety of areas and backgrounds to understand one another readily. Most of the rules of grammar and punctuation are a way of making sense - of communicating efficiently.

Creating Clear Paragraphs

Paragraphs are difficult to define because they have so many shapes and sizes. They are needed, however, to help the reader follow the development and shift of ideas. These guidelines for paragraphing will help you maintain a sense of clarity and order in your writing.

  1. Create a new paragraph for a change in idea or topic. Paragraphs develop and frame ideas. By creating a new paragraph, you signal to a reader that you have finished developing one idea or an aspect of it and are switching to another. Of course, it is possible to outline several ideas in a single paragraph - for example, if you are briefly stating the reasons for some action. If you discuss an idea at any length in a paragraph, however, you should create a new paragraph when you move on to another idea.
  2. Make the first sentence the topic sentence. In business writing, by beginning each paragraph with the key idea, you make it easier for the reader to quickly catch the drift of what you are saying. Good skim-readers know how useful this practice is; it allows them to whiz through a lengthy piece of writing and still capture its essential meaning.

    Admittedly, not all paragraphs in good prose have topic sentences; nor does every topic sentence have to appear at the beginning. In creating a persuasive argument, for example, you may want to lead indirectly to a topic sentence, by starting with particular facts and later pulling them together with a general statement. Yet for most of your business writing, begin with a topic sentence. Do a quick check on the sequence of topic sentences in your writing. If you get a clear idea of the line of your thinking, your writing will likely seem well-ordered and logical o other readers.
  3. Vary paragraph lengths. The trend is business writing is to short paragraphs, since they look less dense than long ones and are more inviting to read. Follow this trend and avoid long paragraphs. When you see a chain of long paragraphs, try splitting some at an appropriate spot. On the other hand, a string of one-sentence or two-sentence paragraphs can make your writing seem choppy and undeveloped. Although such strings are appropriate for news releases, and for short business letters and memos, in lengthy letters and reports the ideas need more development. Try for variety; it's as much the spice of writing as of life.
  4. Keep the focus. Some paragraphs may not seem focused, even though the sentences are all on topic. The reason may be that they are constantly shifting the grammatical subject.
  5. Link the ideas. Some words and phrases have a linking function, signalling to the reader the relationship between sentences and parts of a sentence. They act as both flue to the logic and guide to the transitions between ideas. By correct use of the common linking words and phrases listed below you will help make your paragraphs clearer and coherent.

Numerical signals, such as first, second, third, are also useful linking words.

When you sit down to write, if you are constantly worried about the correctness of your writing, you may freeze at the switch and have difficulty getting started. A solution is to forget about grammar, spelling or any kind of mistake and simply get your ideas down on the page. Many experienced writers find that working straight through the first draft is the best way to begin. Only then do they start revising and editing. This method will help you to avoid writer's block. You will have to leave a lot of time for editing and revision, however. Even if you revise as you go, you need to spend time editing. Clearly, the most effective writer is not the one who can bang out the first draft quickest but the one who edit best.

CONCLUSION

The writing stage seems to include a number of standard decisions. These relate to content as well as presentation. The process is not standard. Some individuals seem to be able to write a good first draft directly from raw company data. Others go through a number of rough paragraph drafts. Standard procedure is to concentrate on content in the first draft and presentation in subsequent drafts.

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Case Study by: Marketing Research Team, 3EA