Cultural stereotypes as assets: structure

[This post is part of the series on navigating stereotypes that are ascribed to me because of my nationality.]

In Spain they call German people “cabezas cuadradas” which means approximately “square head”. We are seen as taking everything serious and being very structured both in our way of thinking and in organizing stuff. Maybe, maybe not. But perhaps that is the reason why I like to write things down. And why I like to have all the information available to figure out the big picture.

And then I write it down, trying to pin all the important characteristics down without getting into technical details or adding too much in-house information. Imagine this handout would be the introductory lesson to new colleagues. Or new participants in the project, or as a guideline for the techies to get the technical specs done. If everybody works away with a clear idea, only then I am satisfied.

At work I am often prompted to write down complicated projects into a dense description so that newcomers and external partners can quickly understand what we are working on. I do have a an ability for clear expressions, however, many of the tools I use to get structure into my head are available for everybody. And thinking and expressing yourself in a structured and logical way depends on how much practice you have. It is not totally innate (though perhaps the fun I am having with it is).

I’ll try to pinpoint my personal highlights and strategies to get a dense and consise explanatory paper:

  1. Worry about the content, not the language. Writing a well structured and easily understandable paper is not the same as “writing beautiful”. If I were to worry too much about the beauty of my language I would never get everything done. And here is the thing: I am not a copywriter. I do not write for marketing purposes. I write to explain things. To make complicated relations clear to people from outside (the company, the project, the team). If these things are to be published they need to go through the hands of a native-speaking copywriter anyway (as I usually write in foreign languages). So get rid of the idea to write everything in perfect style. The understandibility is the important thing (and yes, you may create new words if necessary).
  2. Before starting on the writing, check what you know already. Write down everything you know to find the gaps in your own imagination: I usually use mindmeister for this purpose, as it allows me to start off in a totally unstructured way. Because structure is not there from the very beginning.
  3. Find the gaps. You probably received a briefing from somebody, or you have been working on the project yourself already so you have a lot of initial knowledge. However, the most important part is to find the gaps where you are not so sure how things work. Or where your conclusions are based on guesswork. Spent time on evaluating for each part of your project where your information comes from and how much you can trust this information.
  4. Talk to those who know. If possible personally. Some weeks ago I documented a software tool which categorizes texts. Without going into the algorithm I wrote down all the rules I knew that were applied to the text to be treated. These rules I handed over to the software developer who quickly pointed out the rules that were not correct. The important thing here is: talk to the people if you want to get a quick feedback. It usually doesn’t take more than 5 minutes if you explain what you need. And emails of this kind tend to be answered with a lot of delay.
  5. The first proofreader should be somebody who doesn’t know the project. This will give you relevant feedback on whether your style is easy enough for new people to understand it. Don’t underestimate the impact of your own implicit knowledge which you cannot expect everybody to have.
  6. Distribute the first draft to the decision makers. After rectifying those things you got wrong, send your draft to the people most important in the project. Tell them that this paper will be used to introduce people to the project and that you need their OK to proceed with the final version. If there is a huge mistake, they will jump. If not, you can go ahead.
  7. If the document is used for external stuff, check up on the copywriter. After the language and beauty correction, your paper should still be easy to understand. So, if your copywriter beliefs that sophisticated language correlates with complicated words, you might have to have a chat with him or her. Knowledge should not be coded too hard.

And last but not least, once your basic documentation is ready, make sure it is reviewed from time to time. Otherwise you might be training new stuff on software that you used 6 month ago, but which has developed enormously since than.

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