Copy and Paste, Or How to Think Outside the Text Box

Think really hard about that text you just copied… Like ‘sitting on a stump alone deep in the woods’ hard.

Hey, remember me? I used to write posts here. My apologies. I went away on Paternity Leave and … ahhh, never mind, no excuses. I’m planning to provide regular updates again, but they’ll be spread out a bit more than before. I’ve exhausted most of the topics I wanted to write about and unless you have specific questions, I’ll just post when something strikes me. I’m hoping for once a month or so. On to the topic at hand.

I’ve mentioned before that a huge part of your job as a Planner will be writing. I’ve also mentioned that many of the projects you’ll work on will be similar. The obvious connection here is COPY AND PASTE! While this sounds like a no-no, it’s actually pretty common practice, and a great way to be more efficient and productive. If you or a colleague have written Urban Design Guidelines for a mid-size City in Ontario, and you’re working on Urban Design Guidelines for a mid-size City in Vancouver, go ahead and copy and paste any relevant text. If you wrote an overview of the Provincial Policy Statement for Guelph, and you’re working on a project in Barrie, go ahead and re-use that text – it’s all relevant. In fact, I like this approach because it gives me the chance to refine text each time I use it, making it better and better, until I feel it’s perfect. Of course every City is different, and every project has its nuances, so there will be lots of chances to prepare original text (might as well take the break when you can get it).

As you start your career, you’ll find yourself using copy and paste all the time. From small tasks (i.e. open house materials) to final documents, you’ll often be told to ‘refer to such and such’ or ‘use such and such as an example.’ Often, a significant amount of the text will be useable, and you may just have to change the project name, or refer to a few local landmarks. Take these examples, which could be found in any set of Urban Design Guidelines:

Sidewalks along Main Street should have a minimum width of 2.1m.
Sidewalks along Queen Street should have a minimum width of 2.1m.

See what I did there? Anyways, you get it, and you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about this. So here goes… It’s okay to copy and paste, but MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE COPYING AND PASTING! This sounds obvious, but it’s actually not. If you’re referring to documents that your colleagues have written –  colleagues who have years of experience on you – it’s easy to just assume they’re right. I regularly found myself writing things without actually understanding what I was saying. If you do this, however, you’re missing out on a great learning opportunity. Instead, read everything carefully, and make sure it’s clear – if you can’t understand it, chances are, neither can your audience. If you’re unsure of something, ask someone. Do you know why a sidewalk should be 2.1m wide? Why not 2.0m? Go ahead, ask someone! Not sure why cul-de-sacs are the devils driveway… ask someone!

Even more important, you should question everything… well, maybe not everything… but anything that doesn’t seem right to you. You may read ten documents that say buildings should be set back from the property line to create a 4.8m boulevard, but this just doesn’t seem right for the heritage street you’re working on. Don’t just assume 4.8m is right, and copy and paste away. You’ve just destroyed a nice, historic streetwall. Instead, read carefully and think it through. Are the other documents related to a heritage street? How much are existing buildings set back (if any)? Should buildings on a heritage street have the same setback? Why? Discuss these questions with a colleague and you’ll learn what the best approach is and why, while also demonstrating that you’re a critical thinker. Who knows, you might even find that the other documents used the wrong approach (it happens).

It’s not always easy to admit you don’t know something. You’ll worry that your questions are dumb, or that you should know the answer. Ignore this feeling. No one will think less of you for asking a question (even a dumb one). Besides, it’s better to ask now than to have it come up five years from now and you still don’t know the answer.

OK. You’ve read carefully, asked questions where needed, and feel confident you understand everything you’re copying… Now go ahead and paste away – you deserve it!*

*Don’t copy and paste things from other companies, or things you don’t own… that’s plagiarism.

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