Large document, looming deadline: a 4-step survival guide

Survival guideEver been charged with the responsibility of producing a large, business-critical document within a seemingly impossible deadline? Perhaps it was a tender or a client proposal, a project brief or even the annual report?

When faced with a daunting task such as this, it can be tempting to run for the hills, or at least bring forward your annual leave. Here’s a few survival tips to help you deliver.

1. Establish realistic timelines

If it’s a large document with multiple authors, your first challenge will be getting the information you need. If possible, arrange an initial meeting with all the contributors to establish a realistic project timeline.

Factor in time for revisions (see point 4) and other commitments the authors may have. Also allow some extra time to cover any contingencies (e.g. illness, printing delays, etc.). Note the delivery dates and who is responsible in Microsoft Project or a spreadsheet, and get everyone’s agreement before you begin.

2. Use a document template

If you’re using Microsoft Office, it’s relatively easy to create a Word document template containing all required styles and formatting (e.g. body text, headings, lists, tables, etc.). Other common word processing applications (e.g. Apple iWork Pages, IBM Lotus SmartSuite Word Pro) have similar functionality.

By establishing a template upfront and getting people to use it, you’ll save valuable time that might otherwise be spent reformatting the document. By providing a hierarchy of heading levels in the template, you can also help contributors to organise and consistently structure information.

For more information about Word templates, see our article Using Microsoft Word templates.

3. Maintain version control

Ever spent a few hours working on a document only to find it’s not the latest version? Version control is critical in any large documentation project, particularly one with multiple contributors and reviewers.

Having a version naming convention helps, but using a document version control tool like Microsoft SharePoint is even better. At Red Pony we often work across different sites, so we use the web-based tool Basecamp by 37 Signals to manage project communications and file exchange.

4. Allow time to review

It seems obvious, but when a deadline looms this last crucial step is often overlooked. Always allow time for the document to be reviewed and edited, preferably by someone other than the original author. A fresh set of eyes will pick up mistakes and omissions that might otherwise have been overlooked.

As well as allowing time for a thorough copy edit, make sure you conduct a final review before the document is released. You will be amazed at the things you pick up—the wrong client name, spelling errors on the title page, even missing sections. When the pressure is on people will make mistakes, so a quick final check may help avoid embarrassment later on.

This article is an adaptation of the paper I presented at the 2009 IPEd Conference.

photo credit: landrovermena via photopin cc