On Friday evening I sent the client the first draft of the INFRARED whitepaper.
Oh, that’s right, other than this tweet, I haven’t mentioned INFRARED before! It’s a two-part project consisting of:
- a medium-length whitepaper detailing the value proposition of a new service the client will be offering
- an article calling attention to the problem this new service helps to address
This whitepaper is the first deliverable for this client (there’s another project on the go, but it’s still in the early stages), which is always interesting since neither one of us really knows what to expect. I empathize with their position, trusting someone they don’t really know to write something for them…no matter how many times I go through it (I think Cromulent’s into the mid-20s now for clients?) there’s still a bit of excitement of the unknown. But I digress.
INFRARED came about when the client emailed asking me to write an article for an industry publication. The email summarized the ask and included a number of resources:
- A few example articles
- An academic study related to the subject
- A 60+ page government study
- A presentation outlining the client’s solution, plus a longer explanation in PDF
I knew I wouldn’t be able to start on the writing right away, but nevertheless I did what I always do when I get a bunch of info about a new project: I read through it to get the lay of the land and to let my subconscious get to work, churning and bubbling away in the background.
Go subconscious, do your thing!
In addition to the resources the client sent, I also went to the industry publication and read a few other articles, to get a sense for what they’re like in terms of tone, length, and so on.
A couple of days later we had a quick chat. During the course of this conversation the ask changed a little bit: having thought about it a bit more, the client now wanted to have an article (to highlight the market problem in general) and a paper to provide more details for intrigued readers.
I confirmed that there was no deadline, which is nice because it gives me time to keep mulling.
Shortly after our convo, I realized that the most efficient way to pursue this project was to write the paper first, and then adapt the front matter—say, the executive summary and introduction—into the article.
As it happened, the week I planned to get down to business, I had three—three!—emergency requests come in. Thankfully, knowing that INFRARED didn’t have a pending deadline allowed me to accommodate these asks and help out the other clients.
OK, with those out of the way, I was ready for some hands-on-keyboard action.
As is often the case, I got started by quickly flipping through all the material I’d been sent; with some time away, and having done a bunch of pondering, I could now look with a fresh set of eyes.
First things first: what’s the point/message/thesis?
I felt pretty good about this piece, because the ask was very straightforward. I had to show that the prevalent thinking about a particular issue was deeply flawed. Conceptually, this mission is simple, but in practice it can be challenging to go, “Hey, you know your opinion on that thing? It’s wrong. Yeah, really. Oh, and so is everyone else’s!”
I knew I wanted to dissect the issue in an objective manner, but in this situation I had a rare problem: I actually had so much material to draw upon (those resources that the client sent along) that I had…well, not quite analysis paralysis, but…an abundance of information? Typically I have much less to go on, and I have to fill the blanks myself.
The way I usually get started on a paper of this length is to create a skeleton consisting of H1, H2, and H3 headings that define the overall structure and then populate each chunk with bullets of the topics I want to address, the point of each section, etc.
But I really struggled with this one! I kept popping in headings and content ideas, then I’d move stuff around, then I’d second guess and move it back.
At times like this, I have to remind myself that it’ll work out: I go through this with almost every single project, especially when the subject matter is new to me (as this was). And I have enough experience with my own method to trust that, sooner or later, things will click.
As Joel Embiid was fond of saying: trust the process.
I knew I wanted to dissect the issue—to really break it down into its basic parts and then build things back up.
Ultimately I settled on a structure:
- Define the desired outcome (which shouldn’t be controversial)
- Summarize the options available to companies pursuing this objective—one of which is the client’s approach
- Introduce an objective set of criteria by which these approaches can be evaluated
- Provide a quick education on the nuances and subtleties of the subject matter—this section is critical, because it levels-up the reader to the point where they can appreciate the shortcomings of the other market offerings
- Examine the available options against the criteria, in the context of the reader’s newfound understanding of the issue—doing so will clearly show that the client’s approach is superior (and not just by a little)
That’s actually pretty straightforward (it’s a structure I’ve used countless times), but part of the challenge was that I was learning about the subject almost in real time, and that was informing the criteria, which misconceptions I would raise and so on.
Anyway, I’d say it took me much longer than usual to get the basic headings and the bulleted content ideas in place, as I attacked the subject from different angles, and by that point my brain was zonked.
In fact, there were a few times during the writing of this piece that I had to take time away: go for a vigorous run to reset my brain; do some dishes; sleep on it, etc. Each break gave me the space I needed to come up with some new insights, some new structure, etc.
Plus, as is often the case, there’s some benefit in my ignorance, because I bring an outsider’s view and I can at least partially relate to the questions that non-expert readers will ask. In the course of looking for answers and increasing my knowledge of the subject I came across some really great resources and authoritative references that I cited to support the paper’s assertions: hey, it’s not us saying this is true, it’s the U.S. freaking government.
I ultimately got started on the actual writing part the same way I often do in this type of situation: by picking a chunk that I thought I knew pretty well and forcing myself to make some words appear on my screen. Then another chunk. And another. Sometimes these were in order, oftentimes not.
I call this “chipping away” (and it’s a tactic I employ with some frequency!). In some ways it’s like going for a long run…one foot in front of the other, and then sooner or later you realize you’re halfway done and you’re like, hey, I’m already mostly done.
The paper started to come together, slowly at first, then really quickly for a long stretch, then slowly again as I tackled the thorny sections.
Ultimately, the draft that I sent over includes everything but the executive summary (which I almost always write last) and one short-but-critical subsection that I want to consider for a bit longer before putting pixels to page (marked with an embedded comment).
As always, I was excited to send it over—I love moving things into the past (because it frees me up to focus on the next thing) and despite the lack of an external deadline I’d made a commitment to get the draft over by Friday.
Of course, now I have that familiar apprehension. Will the client like it? Is it what they were expecting? I don’t know until I hear their reply. Plus, as already noted, this paper is the first deliverable to this client…so there’s maybe more importance than normal…?
In fact, here’s an excerpt from that email:
As this is my first deliverable to you, I’ll include the following notes:
- I really consider this to be a starting point, to see if it’s on the right track or if it’s missing the mark—is this what you meant when you said you wanted to have a paper to back up the article?
- Let me know: what works, what doesn’t; what you like, what you don’t like; what’s missing, what can be cut; what I got right, what I got wrong, etc.
- Don’t worry about typos, grammatical errors, etc.—I haven’t proofread this doc at all, and my writing approach involves a lot of moving things around and tweaking, and in my focus on getting the macro stuff in place during these early stages I don’t pay much attention to the small things I’ll resolve later
- You’ll see there are some embedded comments, they’re self-explanatory
So yeah, let me know what you think—of course I’m happy to hear any questions, comments, concerns, etc. We can sync over email, Zoom, whatever works.
In my experience, this open, genuinely humble approach is an effective way to get to a great final product. The paper in its current form may not be exactly what the client wants—it may not even be close—but I’m confident it’s at least a step in the right direction and will lead to a productive conversation.
Hearing where it went wrong and where it went right is all part of the learning process, both for developing my understanding of the subject matter and of how we can collaborate on this project and future ones.
Until next time, Diary McDiaryface!