Why is writing important?
Shift to remote
While earlier you would communicate with your colleagues by just walking to their desk and talking, now you have to communicate mostly in writing.
Writing can be internal like in Slack and email, specs documents, plans, release notes, roadmaps, comments, etc.
Or external writing like communicating to customers or partners through tweets, blogs, website copy, email, customer support, and many other ways.
I've worked at a company where my boss would just explain something by talking about it for a few minutes. But due to brevity, it lacked clarity. And there would be an eventual disconnect.
This is also especially true if you work at a company that is geographically spread where you only have a few hours overlap every day. The remaining time has to be connected through writing.
Writing scales, talking doesn’t
Let me explain what that means. Let’s say you're explaining something over a call to one team member - then, you will have to repeat the same information to the other team members.
Whereas, if you write things down, you just need to do it once.
Count the number of times you have to repeat the same instructions and you’ll realize that you’re better served by writing things down.
Don’t waste your productive time in meetings
It astonishes me that some people I know spend more than half their time in meetings. That's half their time being unproductive.
Reflect on your own organization. How many meetings do you have in a day? How much time is spent in these meetings? And how many of those meetings could’ve been avoided with better documentation or an email?
You can do the math. Multiply the number of participants by the total time of the meeting. This will give you everyone's per hour cost and you'll see how expensive meetings really are!
Meetings also have a limit to how many people can contribute at the same time, i.e., usually 2 or max 3. Now if there's a meeting with 10 people, the other 7 are passive participants.
I know that in some situations, it's just simpler to have everyone on one call and discuss something. But that should be the exception, not the norm.
The only exceptions to this rule, according to me, are standup meetings and all-hands meetings.
What do top startup people say about writing?
- Sahil Lavingia
- David Perell
- Shaun at Stripe
So what constitutes good writing?
First, writing has to serve a few purposes:
Writing has to be clear
The key issue faced with bad writing is that it isn't clear, which ends up taking more time to explain, and usually used as evidence that writing isn't effective. Talking can clear things out easily.
For that purpose, writing should bring clarity. It should be unambiguous. It should address or mention all likely scenarios and questions beforehand.
Writing has to be concise
People don’t have time. You have to convey your points in the least number of words. Good writing doesn’t mean it has to be flowery language.
Pyramid writing, a long favorite of management consultants, is a good way to communicate information to busy people:
- Start with the conclusion at top
- Explain how you reached the conclusion
- Add a table of contents so that people can skim to the section they're interested in reading
Writing has to be purposeful
What do I mean by purposeful? It needs to have a purpose to exist. It needs to be persuasive to drive consensus on a topic. For that, it needs to be engaging enough – what isn't actually read is useless.
You can include a narrative to make it engaging, but not at the cost of the other two aspects.
Examples of great business writing
- Slack CEO’s'- We Don’t Sell Saddles Here
- Amazon’s shareholder letters
- Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters
- Stripe's API docs
- Gitlab's guides
How to make your writing better?
- Observe the themes used in the links above and include them in your writing
- Notice times when your writing created questions or didn’t resonate
- Make it a habit — write daily or at least weekly
- Write publicly and get feedback from people
We talked about how writing permeates all use cases. I personally use a combination of Slite (for work), and Notion and Roam Research (for personal).
I would avoid using Slack as the primary place to write, because of it's back-scrolling nature. It’s not a good place to store information that is organized hierarchically or relationally.
A wiki or a note-taking app is the best place to memorialize institutional decisions.
Is writing enough? What goes along with it?
Writing can sometimes be too abstract. You can supplement writing with different mediums.
To visualize a solution better — use a whiteboard, sketches, or wireframes.
To add nuance and tone to your communication, you could record audio or video along with a screenshare on an app like Loom.
The key is to avoid un-leveraged one-time communication.
Companies with a strong writing culture
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