How familiar does this scenario sound? Last year, a big report had to go out in January. Everything about it was finished late and in a last-minute panic that had people working until all hours, and the end result was, well, underwhelming.

After that debacle, there was a universal determination to do better this year. No one wanted it to happen again. But wait, it’s almost October already and the same train is heading your way and picking up speed.

Fingers are being pointed and everyone is asking the same questions: How did this happen? Where have we gone wrong?

It sounds like a lack of planning is the main problem. To use a tired old axiom, failing to plan is planning to fail.

But planning is one thing, knowing what to do and how to do it well are equally important. So in the interests of helping you keep your blood pressure at non-lethal levels, here are some tips on how to plan a writing job.

Start early

This is the biggest, most important piece of advice anyone can give you. If you begin the planning process well ahead of time, you will have the luxury of being able to work out what is needed and when before the heat is turned up.

With plenty of time in hand, you can even work the planning around other jobs if a couple of spare hours appear in your day. However, this still means you need to set time aside to plan and talk to others involved in the project.

The ideal situation is to be able to brief everyone involved at a comfortable early stage and allocate the necessary jobs. Done right, it can mean the entire project doesn’t fall onto one person’s shoulders come crunch time.

Bear in mind that being able to write well is not a natural ability and for many people the mere thought of committing something to virtual paper holds the same dread as public speaking.

Starting the process early for these people provides plenty of opportunity to get them help. Leave it to the last minute and you can expect a train wreck.

If your report is on a particular subject, starting early gives you time to do some proper research and gather some really good sources of information.

Consider your themes

Even annual reports have themes, or over-arching descriptions, so it is important to decide what the central idea will be so that the material to support that idea can be woven into the writing to hold it together.

Talk to the people who will be responsible for the end result and get their input on what these themes should be. If you are one of those who will decide, make sure everyone involved in the writing has a clear idea of the story.

Make a list of the topics that need to be covered and who will be responsible for delivering each of them. Clarity kills confusion.

Create a framework

Sketch out the project in broad terms. Work through how the story will be told.

If you think it will help, divide the story into the three broadest categories – past, present, and future – so it follows a logical order. At the very least this will allow you to monitor how the project is progressing.

For example, you can use this framework: ‘We started doing [the subject of the report] this way; we are now doing it like this; but in future this is how we see it.’

Make a list of likely chapters and give them each a timeline and a deadline. The easiest way to do this may be to create a password-protected spreadsheet that you make available to everyone involved in the project.

This will allow everyone to see what needs to be done, what has been done, and what is missing, along with the time of expected delivery. Restricting the ability to change the spreadsheet can give the project co-ordinators peace of mind.

Encourage early contributions

At least you know people are thinking about the project if they can contribute early. You may have to finesse the words and update the figures at a later time, but at least you will have something to work with.

Most projects of any size usually rely on the input of a few people who will each have their own style of writing.

Appoint a lead writer, someone who can unite all of the disparate pieces into one coherent and cogent work. If this is someone internal, great, but often hiring a professional is money well spent.

Visualise the end result

Being able to picture how the report will look as a finished product will help the project stay on track. To do this, you will need to work with a layout, whether it’s online or on paper.

You can download a pagination from the internet or create your own in excel. In essence, it will be a visual representation of the placement of words, images, graphics, tables and design elements. With it you will be able to map out the look of the project and keep track of its progress.

Careful planning and constant monitoring of the project’s progress will help keep stress levels manageable and, hopefully, give you a great result.

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