Definition Writing Skills to Set You Apart

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


Definition writing roadmap

Definition writing is hard.

No one really wants to be there… it feels like a waste of time.

People already know what they think terms mean and where (or who) the problems are.

Argumentative and difficult discussions can arise.

And there’s often a sense that this kind of thing doesn’t actually amount to change that fixes the problems.

That’s just reality.

If you want to know more of the realities of definition writing for a glossary, we wrote a blog on keeping realistic goals here.

Because all these factors mean the risk of the process failing is high, we wanted to spell out the key skills that great definition writers bring to the definition writing room.

These skills may not be the type that get a lot of praise and veneration, but they will streamline the process, making it more likely to be successful.

Key Definition Writing Skill #1: Research

Before arriving at definition writing workshops, research existing definitions for all the terms you expect to be writing in that workshop. Be familiar, or at least aware, of how the term is used differently in different areas.

As we like to say, it’s your job to have a defence when a frustrated attendee says “We already have a definition for this in X document. Just use that.”. If you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to show that person that there’s many definitions in many documents and they conflict – which is why you need to find a single definition.

Key Definition Writing Skill #2: Understand how ambiguity arises

Language is a wonderful thing. It has allowed humans to communicate for millennia. But not without also causing confusion from time to time. If you understand this, you’ll be the shining star of the definition writing workshop (at least in your own mind).

Punctuation and grammar, those dull things you thought you’d never have to think about after you left school, are back to haunt the definition writer who cares about clarity. Misuse of apostrophes, poorly placed commas, forgotten full stops, homophone mistakes, or plain old badly written sentences can all cause confusion.

You’d be surprised how often we see such things in glossaries and definition lists.

Know your grammar and punctuation. Or better yet, learn to structure your definitions (get details here) so that you eradicate the need for most punctuation and make choosing the grammatically correct words more straight forward.

Key Definition Writing Skill #3: Life cycle diagram the business concepts you’re defining

This is a clever skill that can really help a group discussion gain focus. If you’re defining the really core terms of a business – like customer – it can be really helpful, and necessary, to diagram the customer lifecycle on a white board. At what point does a person become a customer, what phases do they move through, and at what point/s do they cease to be a customer.

As you diagram this in front of the group, different functional areas will interject with “we consider someone a customer before that, when they …” and voila, you’re already finding the definitional differences that that can cause project and reporting problems.

We’ve seen life cycle diagramming add direction to discussions that had gone in circles for very long periods of time. Once all the options are on the board, decisions must be made about what the official start and end points are. That can be hard. But at least everyone can see the problems, they know the options, and can then discuss the best solution.

And the definition will carry clarity.

Note: Often, this is also the point when attendees really begin see purpose to their discussion, and engagement increases. It’s the start of building a community of business-wide information experts, who understand the complexities of communication and information throughout the organisation. And that’s one of the cultural keys to great IM in large organisations.

Key Definition Writing Skill #4: Know when to end a discussion

It’s inevitable that you’ll find the group wanting to revisit a definition over and over. This isn’t always bad – people often need to have time between workshops to mull over what’s been discussed. They’ll return with new opinions and spanners to put into the works!

But at some point, such never-ending discussions need to be brought to a close. If you’re not leading the workshops, this isn’t your job. But if you are, you need to know when it’s time to close the discussion – not too soon and not too late.

The right time is when, rather than covering new information or gaining new levels of insight, the discussion starts to be individuals re-hashing their personal opinions and trying to find new ways to convince others.

Or when it’s clear that there’s no decision that will please everyone – conversations need to become decisions. Some people will be unhappy with the decision and others will be happy. That’s just the way it is.

If you’re unable to curtail a definition writing conversation in a timely manner, you’ll find people losing interest in the whole process. And that’s bad! You want and need their input. People will trust and engage more if they feel there are structures and limitations in place so things don’t drag on and on.

We use the 80/20 rule: if your definition is 80% of the way there, it’s probably good enough to close the discussion and let the governance team do the rest. It can always be revisited down the line if need be.

Key Definition Writing Skill #5: Don’t be strong-armed by software tool terminology

This is so very important!

Business term glossaries are for business terms not software terminology. Software should ALWAYS be bent to match business language.

We know that bending the software to fit business language isn’t always possible. The goal is that business language gets to stand its ground. Those working with the software backend need relevant knowledge and understanding of how the business uses its terms, and how those terms relate to whatever terminology the software uses.

That’s exactly why you need a great business glossary. Glossaries give IT access to that knowledge.

But if you keep telling business staff they have to change their language to match software tools, it’ll be a disaster.

Firstly, they won’t do it.

Business language arises in the activity of using it, the way all language does. It morphs and moves as needed. Of course, software can’t be changed like this, but the glossary can be, and if IT staff are trained to refer to the glossary in their work, they’ll always have access to the knowledge they need to get things right.

Secondly, software can’t and won’t give business staff the flexibility they need to develop the language that best supports business process. The best busines process should always be chosen. The language developed around that will be used (regardless of what the software uses). So those working in the software need to bend their language to the business’s use of terms.

Sadly, this isn’t often the case.

IT often rush to buy a software solution before truly grasping the process needs of business. Not having a glossary is part of the problem here – a well written one would enable very clear understanding of requirements.

We once encountered a higher education organisation that used terms like “course” and “unit of study” in line with other such institutions across the country. However, IT purchased software from the USA which natively used these terms differently. IT expected business staff to change their usage of these terms to match the software, but this has huge implications for communication and much confusion ensued. How foolish to think the institution should alter standard national language just to match software.

Need help developing these definition writing skills?

We’ve got your back.

Our new Writing Business Definitions – The Intralign Structured Approach 12-week course is beginning soon (August 31, 2021). Registration is open now.

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Mark Atkins, Intraversed

Mark Atkins

Mark is a co-founder & Chief Development Officer at Intraversed, helping organisations establish the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning information management & governance methodology, to achieve reliable information, stable tech spend & greater IT project success.

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