Saturday, May 04, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - reflections on the end of a writing contract

On Thursday I finished a part time contract rewriting policies for a community housing organisation. I still have some tidying up to do, but my task is basically over.

Reflecting on the experience,  I realised that this was actually the first contract work where my role was writing. In other cases, its been policy analysis with writing. Does this mean that I have made the jump to writing as a professional? Perhaps it does.

People underestimate,  I underestimate, just how long it takes to write simple. clear English. This is especially true when writing under the pressure of deadlines where the expectation (me included) is that a core part of the task is editing what is. It doesn't quite work like that and for several reasons.

The translation of a piece into a new structure and style takes time. There is a confidence issue - how much can you vary the text and get away with it? There is also a content issue.

Technical writing requires an understanding of the policy and processes that the writing is meant to encapsulate, so a multi-stage approach is required.What are the policy principles and processes? What gaps have to be filled? How should this be expressed in simple terms? Note that where there are gaps, the writer is effectively writing new policy and that requires research and commits the organisation. .

Words count. In writing, I was always conscious that what I was saying would have real effects on the organisation and the lives of people. In asking the question how might this work, I was going beyond the ambit of writer into new policy. Here I was reliant on the client to check what I had developed, to ensure that it was consistent with the organisation's ethos on one side, what had to be done on the other.

I was working for a rather good organisation. Later, when time has passed, I might write something here. To do so now would be a breach of confidence. I would like to write something because there were some fascinating cultural issues that I could compare to other organisations.

During this assignment, I realised how much confidence I had lost in previous contracts within the NSW Government sector.. I do not wish to be rude, but 33 re-writes of a Cabinet minute, 20 rewrites of a single policy statement, is not conducive to confidence, efficiency or, indeed, enthusiasm.

My immediate boss was a delight to work with. Committed to the project and mindful of deadlines, she was kind and also focused on what she could do to help. As an aside, I have noticed this generally in the housing sector, government and community. People are nice, committed.

Our boss was bright, sharp, impressive. This is where the confidence issue came in.

In technical writing, there is always a learning curve involved in learning the style of the particular organisation. Ten years' ago I would just have written what I thought was required, pointing to gaps and problems as I went along.

Now I started by taking what had been written and attempted to turn it into a new style that I was still learning. I thought that there were gaps, things that I didn't understand and also a sometimes authoritarian tone in the old policies that I did not like, but I was taking what was as my core base while I felt my way.

As we went along. my writing focus sharpened. I found that I did not need to rewrite, that my bosses' amendments improved my English, that the more authoritarian elements that I had retained were removed, that her comments on process gaps reflected my own feelings. I became more confident and the process speeded up. I was still running behind schedule because of the time taken in initial writing, some things just take time to write, but the turn-around time was excellent.

I'm not sure how best to capture this for you. Perhaps I could put it this way. Previously. for every week of writing, it might take ten weeks of redrafting to get to final. By the end of this contact, three days' drafting took two hours of re-drafting to get to final.

Initially I was working from home with one day in the office. We realised that this wasn't working and went to three and then four days in the office. Initially I was hot desking, but then I found a home in the legal section of the bigger organisation.

I really liked this. I had to bite my tongue sometimes. With my background, I was able to interpret far more of conversations than people realised. Once I left to go outside for a smoke because I suddenly realised that this was a conversation I should not hear. This is a general problem with open plan offices, even when people are keeping their voices down.

Given my background, it was fun sitting there. in the beginning, we joked about being sent to the naughty corner! By the end. legal had adopted me.  I was very touched when I was included in the legal Easter celebrations. Then I gave them a clue about a possible topic for their legal snippets series - the Anzac biscuit. And right at the end, I gave my neighbour a clue on a legal problem she faced that helped form the base of her advice to housing.

  As I left on Thursday, I made a point of thanking our legal team.

I learned a lot on this assignment.  I think that it has improved my writing. I may or may not work for them again. I did get very stressed at certain points. I did not deliver some things. But my work there will remain a high point. My thanks to them all..

 And I will get back to writing here! 
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