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How to Write Fast Under Pressureby Philip Vassallo
DASH—Getting to the Task
You’re at your desk writing a proposal for a key client—a project your boss has just dumped on you and that was due yesterday because he sat on it all week. Meanwhile, all you can think of is that sales report your boss’s boss expects on
her desk from you by the end of the business day. You can’t finish that project because one of your teammates hasn’t run the monthend operating expenses that you need to analyze in the report. The e-mail inbox shows 14 new messages in the past 20 minutes. The electricians are snaking cable through the ceiling tiles, conjuring the image of a pack of rats burrowing through an overhead tunnel. Someone walks past you with his mobile phone blaring the William Tell Overture. Two colleagues whose work areas are nowhere near yours have decided to set up camp right in front of your area to argue over what picture should win the next Academy Award. It’s past two o’clock and you haven’t eaten anything all day. It doesn’t help that a nagging migraine makes your head feel like it’s going to explode. The computer monitor becomes increasingly blurred. An incoming fax screeches its way through the machine rollers. The photocopier down the hall is pounding incessantly. The road department is drilling on the street right outside your window, and you’re sure the vibration of those jackhammers rates at least a 7.0 on the Richter Scale. An incoherent announcement screaming through the intercom—something about ignoring the intermittent howling of the fire alarm—makes you imagine some infathomable fingernail torture. In come 11 more e-mails—most of which you’re sure have nothing to do with you, but which you must open just in case they are for you. You remember that you have to get back to two vendors, three clients, and four teammates about a major engagement that affects everyone’s timeline. A manager saunters by and says, ‘‘Since you seem to have some time on your hands, would you mind helping me carry these cartons into the storage room?’’ Before you can indignantly say, ‘‘Excuse me,’’ in walks a vice president asking, ‘‘Do you have a copy of yesterday’s meeting review? I can’t seem to find mine.’’ You turn beet red and erupt in a primal howl: ‘‘Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!’’
If you’ve read the previous paragraph with the distinct feeling that you’ve been-there-done-that and that you can use some help in dealing with such situations, then you’re reading the right book. How to Write Fast Under Pressure focuses on dealing with time pressures resulting from writing in all sorts of situations and in all kinds of environments—especially when the writing is due yesterday!
Work-Related Writing Situations
Far more people actually write for a living than they’d care to admit—or realize. 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. True, you might not fancy yourself a writer in the sense of being a novelist, playwright, news reporter, or biographer; however, you actually spend as much of your day processing words as any of these writers. In fact, you might have far greater demands on your time than the so-called professionals. Perhaps you manage multiple writing tasks for varied readers, creating proposals for a steering committee whose members represent diverse interest groups, such as Production, Sales, Purchasing, and Finance. Or maybe you write rootcause
analyses that need to pass through Operations, System Safety, and Internal Audit, all of which have unique concerns
about business affecting events. Or you might have to crunch a 40-page audit report into a 250-word, one-page summary for review by the chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and chief information officer—each one wanting a different 250 words! Regardless of the situation, few employees get a lot of time to craft such documents—they must write them on the fly.
Other challenging writing moments pop up whenever we’re not writing strictly by ourselves. For instance, writing for the boss’s signature demands a lot of reflection on style. The last time you wrote for her, she expected you to take an aggressive approach, but this time she’s asking you to pull back the reins. Sometimes she cautions you about using too much passive voice, but now she wants the exact passive style that you’ve tried so hard to avoid. What’s going on here? Such a situation can create confusion or, worse, shake your confidence and cause you to run behind schedule.
Writing collaboratively can lead to heaps of trouble, as well. Say your manager has assigned you to write the introduction and conclusion of a lengthy report, and he has pegged two of your teammates to write the body. You may feel virtually helpless until their completed sections come to you, so if they’re behind schedule, the time pressures on you will be huge. Making matters worse are the divergent writing styles that each teammate may use, triggering the natural tendency in you to deal with that discrepancy by editing for consistency of style before you even start on your writing task. Those early visions of perfection you harbored quickly become overshadowed by the specter of mediocrity—and you haven’t yet written your first word!
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