Writing is harder than you think
I’m writing this for my students, but the world can read along.
During a break from grading, I read a Medium article from Steven Sinofsky.
“Writing is Thinking”—an annotated twitter thread
“Writing is thinking” is my favorite expression for how to work in a company. This annotated thread explores the value…
That article carries lots of value, but I’m focusing on one side trip (I think) that I find significant for my students and for clients I work with. The trip was actually inspired by a document Sinofsky referenced: Jeff Bezos’s letter to shareholders. Again, I’m latching onto something Bezos meant primarily as illustration, but that I want to emphasize as the main point of this post, which is:
Good writing is hard. If you think it’s easy (or, perhaps, hard for the wrong reasons), you won’t put the necessary time into it. That will not only lead to a bad grade; it will also lead to wasted time, effort, and money, and in a business setting, a lost opportunity.
Here is the excerpt that I find most meaningful. (If it seems too long, skip to the observations that follow. You will want to come back later and read it. But at least notice the part I put in bold.)
Recognition and Scope
What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result — the scope.
Let me give you two examples. One is a sort of toy illustration but it makes the point clearly, and another is a real one that comes up at Amazon all the time.
A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” [Emphasis added—DK] Unrealistic beliefs on scope — often hidden and undiscussed — kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be — something this coach understood well.
We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! [Emphasis added—DK] They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope — that a great memo probably should take a week or more.
You mean I have to put time into it?
As I write this, we are coming to the end of a semester. We have about a week of class left, followed by a week of final exams. I anticipate having students in my office who have been in class with me now for 13 or 14 weeks, some of whom will just now realize they won’t get the grade they desire.
It’s certainly not all of them, but some. The conversation typically goes something like this:
“I really need to make an A in this class. What can I do to bring it up?”
“Unless you have a TARDIS or other form of time travel, nothing.”
“Can’t I do extra credit?”
“You needed to do credit. You didn’t. You can’t catch up now, and even if I were willing to offer extra credit, I don’t have time to catch you up. That’s what we’ve been working on for 14 weeks.”
Let’s be clear: I’m not primarily talking about a grade. I’m talking about a grade indicating that learning has happened. It’s not a speedometer on a car. If I were mechanically inclined, I could make the speedometer read 50 MPH while the car sat still. It would mean nothing.
And I’m really talking about recognizing that effective writing takes more time than the average person realizes.
So, for my students: we can’t go back in time, but we can use the time that is ahead in the next two weeks. Plan sufficient time to put your last speech together, and plan sufficient time to write that last paper. Don’t just throw it together at the last minute. If it is too late to get the grade you wanted, then at least don’t waste the education you are receiving in a very real life lesson.
For my clients: if you could just throw it together, so could anyone else, and your value would drop. Your unique experience and what you can bring to the information you share keeps it from being a commodity, but the time you put into crafting the message will give it impact.
For those who are reading along: effective writing is hard, but it’s not impossible. Patience. Perseverance. Give it enough time. It’s not rocket science, but it is sort of like getting to the moon. It takes a lot of time and thought, but it is doable.
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About the writer
Donn King helps you communicate confidently. He writes a lot, too, a habit he hasn’t been able to break for nearly 50 years. Join and support the Learning Community of Raconteurs with him on Patreon. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.