One of my former students writes for a healthcare products company. Recently, his colleagues asked him to deliver a workshop for them about writing. We had a long conversation on how he prepared this workshop, including deciding what he should cover, and why.
What follows is a record of our conversation about his experience. We hope it helps you when you get the request to create a workplace writing workshop.
Q: How did your company ask you to do a workshop?
A: I was talking with my team about how I was graduating with my degree in professional technical writing and a co-worker asked if I could give her some training. Then others on the team asked for training too.
Q: Who did you design the writing workshop for?
A: The training was for the lab technical employees. They ranged from managers to technicians. Each one of them reviews or creates documentation that supports the release or production of our healthcare products.
Q: What training topic(s) did they request from you?
A: My colleagues wanted training on how to
- write more clearly
- reduce the number of questions that they get from document users
- fix grammar issues*
For example, one of the attendees mentioned an experience that she had with getting input from a supervisor on a document that she had written. The supervisor had commented on her grammar, and the attendee wanted some tools to be able to improve.
Also our company is currently reviewing and re-writing many of our procedures. Therefore, a major focus of the training was the review and editing one of these procedures that we are working on.
Q: How did your workshop compare to what you think of as an ideal length for a workplace writing workshop?
A: My training was only one hour. I think the training was too short for any real change to occur, but my co-workers seemed satisfied, so it addressed some immediate short-term needs
Q: Based on your experience with this workshop, how many workshops would be ideal for helping coworkers to implement change in writing practices?
A: I think that a one or two more sessions to complete an entire document would be best. We were able to complete a team-edit of only part of a document in our one hour together. If we had two more one-hour sessions, we could finish a whole document as a team. This way the participants would gain more realistic experience applying what they learned. Also, by the end of the training the participants would have a completely edited document that they can use with clients and coworkers.
Q: What was the format you chose for your workshop?
A: The format was two-fold:
Part 1: presentation/discussion
Part 2: discussion/workshop in which we worked on a document that the participants selected. The group was only 10 people, which allowed for open discussion and a workshop.
Q: How did you structure your workshop?
A: We spent the first 30 minutes providing an overview and introducing some easy fixes for some common issues that I had observed in our documents:
- not enough audience analysis before writing documentation
- using passive voice in a procedure
- using the same word in a sentence multiple times
- not enough white space to make documents easier to comprehend
We then spent the rest of the meeting applying the easy fixes I presented to editing a real document produced by our company. We made it only through the first page of a 25-page document.
Q: How much lead time did they give you to prepare the workshop? What would be the ideal lead time?
A: I was given a lead time of 1.5 months. I think it was sufficient since I was familiar with the procedures and the common writing issues.
Q: How did you do a needs analysis to determine what you should cover?
A: Fortunately, I am new to this company. So, I was in the process of being trained on our procedures and processes. This included reading and training on over 100 procedures.
I first asked the team what they expected and what their struggles were. I also evaluated the types of documents that we are working on and creating–currently we have a team project to improve our procedures. Then during my training (which included a lot of company-document reading), I took notes of common mistakes that I had observed.
Q: What did you cover? Tech writing skills? General grammar knowledge? Plain language issues?
A: During my assessment, I recognized that there was a real lack of audience analysis. The documents were written for the writer. They were very unapproachable, and during my training I got little out of them.
During the audience analysis discussion, we included aspects of content strategy:
- How will the documents be used
- When will the documents be used
- Who will use the documents
Then we covered usability issues:
- how to help our readers find what they need quickly
- how to use white space to improve readability
Next, we worked on grammar and style issues. Here are a few specific ones we covered:
- parallel structure
- passive versus active voice
- “; therefore,” punctuation
- use of the same word in a sentence: “This document documents the documentation for the documented evidence.”
We finally moved on to tools that they can use to answer their own writing questions:
- turning on grammar check for Word
- using the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University’s website
- using style guides
Q: What issues came up during your workshop that you might cover in a follow-up session?
My team was really enthusiastic and excited to learn these skills. As you can see, there was a lot of information shared in a short one-hour period.
It was interesting to watch what happened when we started working on the document. Applying what they just learned took some getting used to. The team struggled with the first sentence for about 10 minutes: that sentence started as 4 lines long. By the end of the training, however, we had edited it down to 10 words. Then some participants felt like it was lacking information and too short.
They started to get the hang of it after a few more minutes, but we were still not able to exercise all of the skills that we had just learned.
Q: What would you do again in your next workshop?
A: Focus on audience analysis. And work on a real-world directly-applicable document for the team. It was cool for the team to see how the writing tools I presented changed a document that they used on a daily basis. After just a few lines there was excitement within the team, and the document was making a lot more sense.
Q: What would change for the next workshop?
A: I would either cover less information in the presentation discussion, or change the workshop from one hour to three hours long.
Q: What did your participants gain from attending?
A: My team started to recognize why some sentences were easier to read than others and how to make their documents more readable. In fact, there have been several instances since the workshop in which the team has come up to me with examples of the issues that we discussed during the workshop.
Q: What did you gain as a professional writer?
A: I think the benefit for me as a professional writer is that now my team considers me a resource for questions that they may have. Also, seeing the excitement that the team had for even just a little of this training motivates me to provide more.
Q: What advice do you have for other writers who are asked to do something similar for their organizations?
A: Find out what they need and are looking for in this training, remembering that “need” and “want” might not be the same. Keep it small and applicable to their specific situation. For example, don’t try to teach a bunch of microbiologists about HTML formatting. Work on something that they create or use.