This is a document about creating documents, or as we jokingly said at the office: “the Inception of documents”. The entire seven step process is covered in this blog post, but due to the limitations of the blog layout you don’t get the benefit of seeing the embedded version of this document’s state at each of the steps.
- Here is a link to the printable PDF layout of this material. This is what this document looks like at the completion of step #7.
- You can also download this zip of OpenOffice files. This is probably the trippiest way to experience this content since the step 7 document has all the steps â€” including itself â€” embedded within it. This version won’t print in any meaningful way and it probably won’t look good in MS Word either.
How do you get started writing aÂ document or a presentation? There are many ways you can approach thisÂ task. The following is a description of the process that I personallyÂ use â€“ in fact, I used this approach when creating this document.
The Seven Steps
The Goal of Creating Documents
TheÂ main goal that you should have when creating aÂ document is to clearlyÂ communicate your ideas. I hope that the process described in this document will help you to make documentsÂ that more effectivelyÂ communicate by:
- Promoting the organization ofÂ your ideas (by continually re-visiting and updating your Table of Contents)
- Having ideas that are fleshedÂ out through repeated refinement
- Presenting ideas professionallyÂ with a consistent use of visual style
- Supporting ideas through images,Â diagrams, and a page layout that considers the contextualÂ relationship of ideas (images should be placed physically close toÂ the text that they relate to)
Note: While I’ve presented this method as seven discrete steps, in practiceÂ you will be working in one continually evolving document. You can beÂ â€œat step 7â€ and still add new ideas.
Write down all of your ideas as theyÂ come to you, this can be rough â€“ don’t worry about getting thingsÂ in the right order, or formatting, or even about proper punctuation,Â capitalization, or grammar. Alternatively you could use a mindÂ mapping diagram, but for me just writing things down as I think ofÂ them works fine.
Step 2: Assign Paragraph Styles
Assign paragraph styles such asÂ â€œHeading 1â€, Heading 2â€, â€œBodyâ€, etc. This is necessary forÂ generating the Table of Contents in Step 3 and is a key factor inÂ helping you to organize your ideas. The proper use ofÂ paragraph styles will result in a much more visually consistent document or presentation â€“ no matter what your output media is.Â These paragraph styles are easily converted into CSS styles for theÂ web, Indesign paragraph styles for print or PDF generation, andÂ slides in presentation software.
Step 3: Create a Table of Contents
Place your ToC on the first or secondÂ page of your document, after your Document Title but prior to any ofÂ your content. In OpenOffice you can create a ToC inÂ the following menu:
InsertÂ > Indexes and Tables > Indexes and Tables
Look at your table: does it makeÂ sense? Maybe something that was a Heading 1 should be a Heading 2 orÂ vice versa? As you continue to refine your document, be sure toÂ update the ToC frequently. This will allow you to see how yourÂ changes are fitting into the big picture. To update your ToC:
RightÂ click the ToC and select Update Index/Table
Step 4: Refine Your Content
- Flesh out your notes (add details to each section)
- Rearrange the information (move sections around, change the heading level, etc)
- Remove unnecessary information
- Update your ToC frequently
Step 5: MoreÂ Refinement
Repeat all of the refinement steps.Â Do this as many times as necessary.
The default formatting of Heading 1Â and Heading 2 starts to bother me by this point in the process; so IÂ edit the style â€“ even though I know I’ll be doing my layout in a different program. This may seem like wasted work, but IÂ feel that the improved line spacing, improves the readability of theÂ document and my ability to see if the information is organized well.Â The main parameters I adjust are the â€œspacings above and belowÂ paragraphsâ€ and the fonts styles (I don’t like my headings to beÂ italicized). Depending on the program you may also need to adjust theÂ font sizes. I also try to remove any double line breaks from my text at thisÂ point, opting instead for achieving my desired line spacing in theÂ style definitions.
Step 6: VisualÂ Clarification
What points of your document are hardÂ to explain in words? Maybe a diagram can explain your point moreÂ clearly. My preferred tools for most diagrams are either pencil andÂ paper (use a scanner to capture the image) or Adobe Illustrator. TheÂ reason I like Illustrator more than Photoshop is that it is easier toÂ move your elements around and it encourages a design that can work inÂ silhouette. You can make notes about what kind ofÂ visual support you will need as they come to mind. Here’s an example:
[IMAGE: include aÂ screenshot of X here]
If you plan on using Powerpoint orÂ Indesign for your final presentation then you don’t need to includeÂ those images in your word document. If you plan on making your final presentation in Word or Open Office then you can start to includeÂ those supporting images in-line at this point. Don’t worry too muchÂ about the placement or text wrapping mode â€“ save that detailedÂ alignment for the Page Layout stage.
Step 7: PageÂ Layout
Don’t worry about the layout of yourÂ document until your table of contents (your document outline) isÂ close to complete. If you move into the layout stage too early you will avoid making changes to your content since a change in contentÂ will likely mean a change in page layout too. Once you are happy with the content,Â you can begin to format your document using something like Word,Â Powerpoint, or Indesign. Because you’ve already used textÂ styles, creating a consistent style in your layout will be a lotÂ easier. I recommend:
- NeverÂ edit the formatting of text directly, always edit the paragraphÂ style that the text’s formatting derives from.
- If you do edit the textÂ directly, be sure to update the style from the selected text rightÂ away to ensure that you don’t have miss-matched styles down the road.
Depending on the Length of your document, you may choose to removeÂ your table of contents once you’ve reached the Page Layout stage.
An Alternate Method
An alternate method to the oneÂ presented here would be to write an outline first. In my method theÂ ToC becomes the outline and changes over time. An outline firstÂ method would be good when:
- You have a strict set of pointsÂ that you need to cover â€“ your boss or client gives you a list ofÂ topics they are expecting to see covered.
- The kind of document you’reÂ working on is new to you and you don’t know where to start. In thisÂ case you may chose to start with a template such as a Game DesignÂ Document template or a Business Plan template. This may help you toÂ write about things that you may overlook otherwise. My first gameÂ design document was created in this way, though as you becomeÂ comfortable making documents you will probably find that you stopÂ using templates.
In either of these cases, you couldÂ follow a slightly modified process from the one presented in thisÂ document:
- Write down the template subjectÂ headings or the required points
- Assign text styles to thoseÂ points (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc)
- Brainstorm content for eachÂ section
- Refine the Content
- Visual Clarification
Here are some important points toÂ keep in mind when polishing your document:
- Does your document tell a story?Â Looking at your ToC should let you know if you’ve put your ideas inÂ the correct order.
- Are there any obvious spellingÂ or grammar mistakes? Proof read your document before publishing it.Â After you proof read it, have a friend proof read it too.
- Writing style: my friend DavidÂ Sirlin recommended that I read The Elements of Style by Struck andÂ White. This is a great little book that can improve your writtenÂ English and your writing style. The most quoted piece of advice fromÂ that book is this:
â€œVigorous writing is concise. AÂ sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph noÂ unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.â€
- Use consistent formatting. Are all of your Heading 1’s using the same font/weight/color? Are they all aligned and placed in a similar manner? How about your call out boxes? Your supporting images? Your slide backgrounds? By keeping as much of the design from slide to slide â€“ or page to page â€“ consistent, we allow the reader or the viewer to focus on what content is different.
If you want a layout that is readable on-screen and also printable, I recommend setting your page properties to landscape A4 (or Letter if your audience is in the USA). This will look good full screen and is also compatible with printers.
If you want to make the best handout ever, then a sheet of A3 or Tabloid paper folded in half will give you a nice fourÂ page handout without needing any staples.
You can have sparse presentation slides, but please do not print those slides as a handout, that is a waste of paper and also lacks the detailed information that you presented verbally.
There is no right way to present your information, just better ways. Find a level of detail and a layout that most effectively presents your ideas.
- David Sirlin: Writing Well Part 1 â€” Sensibilities
- Edward Tufte:Â any book or handout by Edward Tufte
- Anna Johnson: Good Handout Design â€” How To Make Sure Your Students Are Actually Learning From Your Lecture Notes
- MS Word Team:Â How to Make the Formatting in Your Document Consistent
- Tzvi Freeman: Creating A Great Design Document