How to write

Filtering the ocean: how to manage information overload on big writing projects

Here at Articulate we deal with all sorts of sizes and shapes of copywriting projects. Some come with precise briefs and ideal interviewees. Others require us to do a little more research and carve out a shape and direction for the client. Every now and then, however, we get the type of project that, in some ways, is the hardest of all: an information overload.

Indicators of an information overload

Sometimes these projects sneak up on you: they seem all innocent and manageable, then BOOM. You're drowning in data at spaghetti junction and you can't even construct a coherent metaphor.

There are a few warning signs, however, that might help you spot an information overload before you're in over your head:

  • There is a vast quantity of existing collateral but none of it already satisfies the client's needs
  • The target market is going through some significant changes that affect how they purchase your client's product
  • There are stakeholders from all over the business involved, meaning there will be pulls in a lot of different directions
  • When you ask the project lead the main direction and message they want to communicate, they give more than one answer

None of this is to say that you should abandon the project, but if you are going to manage, digest and reconstruct a lot of data and desires, then to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Collateral is king (up to a point)

Writers like getting our information in written form. Sales briefs; pitch decks; blog posts; case studies; web sites. All of these things are great for learning about a new product, a company voice, customer priorities and important selling points.

In an ideal world, added to that collateral would be a few interviews with some key stakeholders that help to illuminate the subject and guide our reading. Someone who understands the market or offering intimately and knows what should really stand out and can help us structure our reading.

In an information overload project you get repeated, conflicting, jargon-filled, inappropriate, excessively-detailed and sometimes plain unhelpful collateral, and the interviews, while a useful guiding light, often highlight the precise elements that seem to be missing in the ocean of words approaching you.

This is where some effective management and processes are essential.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

  • Meet, greet and agree. Get together with the key people from the client's side who are going to be reviewing your copywriting. Sit down with them in a room and go through the objectives, the tone and voice and the key selling points in the project. This allows any internal discrepancies to be aired, and you walk away with a single outcome that you can refer back to if feedback and edits start to clash with intentions.
  • Stay organised. Keep careful track of everything your client sends you. Develop a system for filing by product or offering, perhaps by market. Make sure you have some way of easily stepping into the project and pulling out the relevant collateral for the specific piece you are working on.
  • Structure before content. If possible, it helps to figure out a generic structure for your copy before you dive into the research so that you can be thinking where each fact, feature or selling point will fit into your final piece. As a minimum, try to agree on a word count and break it into a repeatable pattern such as: overview, problems and opportunities the customer is facing, overview of how the offering answers or aids the customer, detailed breakdown of how it works, why choose that particular provider.
  • One bite at a time. Open up every document and every web page connected to the piece you are working on. Scan them. If you are struck by how useful something seems it's usually worth printing off to mark up by hand. The rest can stay online.
  • Filter for gold. Start with the printed stuff. Highlight and annotate as you go, always keeping in mind your structure. Then simply, one at a time, work through each piece of collateral, writing down the most salient and simplified version of the information it's providing. It will take a long time. There is no point trying to avoid that.
  • The power of outlines. Close all the collateral and have only your notes and perhaps one or two of the most useful printed documents in front of you and write an outline. Bullet point outlines that you can send to your client are brilliant for ensuring you have picked up on all the essential information and are prioritising the right messages. An outline can also help the client measure if the project is lining up with their previously undefinable expectation.(Best to sort out any disparity now rather than after a hard-graft, first draft.)

Clean, crisp copy

By carefully working your way though these stages, when you come to write a first draft you will only be dealing with a limited amount of information from the outline, the extracted key points in your notes and one or two central documents.

The copy you then create will be a refined and clean version of the overload you started with.

Krill and clean water

Often a metaphor can help to elucidate a meaning. The spark for this post was when I realised that Matthew and I picture this information overload management process a little differently, but ultimately to the same end. Having a way of picturing the whole process in one go certainly makes it feel more manageable.

Matthew and his krill. 'I imagine myself as a whale swimming though the ocean, filtering all the little krills of information and digesting them.' A rather majestic image, which certainly captures the scale of an information overload project.

Clare and her chemistry. I see it as starting with muddy water. You filter it first to remove the sediment. Then you distill the remaining liquid to get rid of any remaining impurities and thus you are left with pure, clean drinking water.

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