Scenario: A colleague emails and asks, “Would you have time to go through this document and give me some feedback? It’s a really critical document that I’m sending to our new client, and I want to make sure it is perfect.” You have a moment then, so you read through the document, make a comment about a sentence that isn’t totally clear, add a missing comma, and then realize that you don’t have much else to say. Because of the document’s importance, you hope you haven’t missed something really important. You wish you could be more sure of how to give a quality review of written materials.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, continue reading. This blog will give you a powerful four-step process called DOCS (Design, Organization, Content, and Sentences).
D is for Design. Before you read a document, first check its visual appeal. Does it look easy to read, with appropriate typography, generous white space, and headings to make it skimmable? Or does it look dense, with long paragraphs and long passages of text with limited white space and no headings? Checking the design is like checking the curb appeal of a home you’re thinking of buying. If it doesn’t look good from the road, you’ll just keep on driving. The same thing applies to written documents—if they don’t look easy to read, the audience might also “keep on driving.” (See our HATS post for more detail about document design.)
O is for Organization. To check the organization, examine the opening paragraph or two. Is the purpose made clear? Does the beginning of the document contain an agenda that previews the structure or content of the message? After checking the beginning for a clear purpose and agenda, skim the architecture of the entire document. Do the sequence and hierarchy make the content easy for you to process mentally? Does the message follow a clear, well designed blueprint or outline? (See our OABC post for more detail about organizing your messages.)
C is for Content. After checking the design and organization, take time to read the full document. Put yourself in the audience’s context, and ask yourself whether the document will achieve its intended purpose. Is the message clear, complete, correct, considerate, and convincing? If not, identify what is missing, such as clearer explanations, more examples, or clearer analysis. Are the individual paragraphs concise and well crafted, with appropriate topic sentences and a coherent flow of information? (See our CLOUD post for more detail about revising paragraphs.)
S is for Sentences. Finally, get down to the nitty gritty of editing and proofreading individual sentences. Make sure each sentence has a clear structure, proper punctuation, and correct grammar. Also make any wording changes match the vocabulary of the audience. (See our SPELL post for more detail about revising sentences.)
These main DOCS factors are captured in the following checklist:
Next time any of your colleagues ask you to critique their writing, remember DOCS. This four-step approach to document review will help ensure that your feedback is methodical, comprehensive, and effective. Further, try it on your own writing. You’ll find that DOCS will boost your confidence in your ability to write, review, and revise.
Most of us have likely experienced that moment of sender’s remorse when we click “send” and then realize that we have forgotten an attachment or misspelled something in the message! Such remorse may be delayed, yet be equally poignant, when we send a message and then receive an awkward reply that reads, “You forgot the attachment,” or “I think you meant to send this to Julie Benson instead of Julie Baxter.”
From the recipient’s perspective, such situations involve their own discomforts when the sender is a manager or when the email was sent to multiple people. In these cases, a recipient must decide . . .
Step 1. Proofread
Before sending a message, I quickly proofread it, looking for both lower-order and higher-order concerns. Regarding lower-order sentence-level concerns, many of my grammatical mistakes occur after I’ve written something and then have revised—fixing a verb here or a noun there without carefully reading the correction in context. Therefore, in my proofreading step, I quickly skim the message from beginning to end, finding the errors that can be caught only in context (subject-verb agreement, ambiguous pronouns, etc.). Skimming the entire message also helps prepare me to address higher-order concerns, such as the organization or strategy.
In addition to a quick skim, reading the message word for word out loud is very effective. This approach helps ensure that the writing sounds conversational and makes sense. Sometimes errors that would go undetected during a silent visual review are exposed when the words are actually spoken aloud.
Proofreading also comes in handy for routine emails I send out by copying and pasting boilerplate material from a previous email (e.g., for recurring meetings). For those types of messages, the proofreading step helps me catch “who,” “when,” or “where” errors that I need to update for the new message recipient.
Step 2. Attachment
After I proofread, I check to see if I have included any attachments referred to in the message. Checking for attachments after writing the message serves as a nice verification step for me, but I’ve also heard of others who take a more proactive stance—they attach the attachments before beginning the email or when they mention the attachments as they write the email.
Step 3. Subject
Reviewing the subject line helps me catch two types of problems. The first review checks for coherence between the subject line and the content. Because email programs present the subject-line field before the message field (scrolling top to bottom on a screen), I usually fill out the subject line before writing my message. Then, if my message topic or purpose shifts while I’m actually composing the message, the subject line no longer fits and a change of the subject line is needed.
A second subject-line review checks for appropriate reader appeal. If my subject line is vague or conveys the idea that the message is low in importance, the recipient may either delay reading or not read the email at all. After proofreading my message, I have a clear idea of what I want the recipient to do after reading the email, and I can update my subject accordingly. In this way, I ensure that the subject is clear and accurate and communicates appropriate urgency, increasing the likelihood that the reader will read and respond the way I hope.
Step 4. To
The final step in the PAST checklist is to double check the To, CC, and BCC fields in my emails. Too frequently we hear about individuals who are fired because they accidentally copied a customer on an email that was meant to be sent only to a coworker. It’s easy for me to understand how such a mistake can be made. For example, I might type “ju” into the “to” field, expecting “Julie Benson” to auto-populate. However, “Julie Baxter” might pop up first, and I might accidentally select the wrong person if I’m not careful. I also know how easy it is to hit the “reply all” button instead of the “reply” button. By taking just a moment to check the To, CC, and BCC fields before sending, I reduce the likelihood of sending these types of potentially job-threatening emails.
Using the PAST acronym will take a little more time than some writers might prefer to spend on emails. However, because so many of my email mistakes occur when I am in a rush, taking a moment to run through the PAST process helps me to slow down a little and prevents many errors from happening.
I’ve also noticed that the PAST checklist helps me when I post to social media. For example, when I’m typing on my phone or tablet, it is way too easy to mistype something, resulting in an error that is now presented to the world. Before posting, I quickly read through the message for mistakes; ensure that all pictures, links, videos, and hashtags have been inserted; update any necessary title lines; and verify that I’m sending or posting to the group or individual that I think I am.
While other technology-based strategies can also be employed to cut down on sender’s remorse (e.g., setting a time delay on all messages sent in Outlook or enabling Gmail’s “undo” feature), a quick PAST review will catch errors that technology will miss. Therefore, consider using the PAST checklist as you send your future emails!
And if you use any other methods to cut down on sender’s remorse, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider reviewing our business communication textbook.