On the Importance of Writing

Everyone is required to write almost continuously at work, and writing remains the single best solution to the many communication and collaboration challenges that face our fast-moving, distributed teams. Yet writing skill in the workplace is greatly varied in my experience, and few companies make a deliberate investment in improving the writing ability of their workforce.

Can you think of any other skill that is required, crucial, has a wide breadth of mastery with a direct impact on the operations of a business, and which nobody is ever trained to do?

The work-from-anywhere revolution is already here, and the software industry is its vanguard. Back in 2012 I worked at a start-up with a guy who was literally “couch surfing” around the world as a full-time software contractor for us. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated this shift. Companies were forced to experiment to survive, and the smart ones have adapted and emerged stronger for it.

Back in the ’80s, remote sales people would travel the country hunting for payphones so they could check in with the home office for messages or new orders. Today, we’re all connected all the time (for better or worse). That connection is accomplished, by and large, through writing. We pour thousands of words into emails, wikis, live chats, ticketing systems, commit messages, collaborative documents, and more every single day.

No matter what your role or function, writing is undoubtedly central to how you plan, collaborate, and execute your work. It may seem obvious, but writing is the best tool for this job because it transcends space and time. You can write something that is read instantly by someone thousands of miles away, or you can write something that is read many years later, by you.

Notwithstanding the challenges of full-text search (a topic I am deliberately avoiding here), written words are trivial to record and can be later recovered for some as yet unforeseen reason. No other form of communication shares this property. Even as I write this, our ability to find and recover previously written text is improving.

When you need a piece of information to be received now, but also later, by people who are nearby, but also far away, there is no substitute for writing.

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In spite of the ubiquity and necessity of writing, few do it very well. Writing accomplishes its essential purpose when executed with modest aptitude, and that “essential purpose” is typically the bar to hit. We all know how to string words together, and everyone mostly makes sense when they do it.

But much more is possible for someone able to ply the craft of writing with mastery. As a tool for persuasion, engagement, and tight alignment, your writing needs to do more than just “make sense.”

Moreover, writing well does more than just engage, align, and persuade. The practice of writing is the method of clear thinking, a fact that is famously exploited at Amazon by their practice of writing so-called “six-pagers.” Few unclear and unsupported thoughts survive their encounter with the page.

“Writing is nature’s way of telling you how fuzzy your thinking is.” — Leslie Lamport

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As your unfiltered brain-slop passes through the sieve of writing, only the relevant bits survive to be arranged in some pleasing and sense-making manner. Writing well only means that fewer bits of slop make it through the sieve, and their arrangement is all the more striking.

Of course that description makes it sound easier than it is; it may be simple and yet still be very hard. I’m reminded of this humorous fictional account of the events surrounding Michelangelo’s unveiling of the statue of David, in which Michelangelo is asked how he could have created such a masterpiece from a “crude slab of marble.”

Michelangelo answers, “All I did was chip away everything that didn’t look like David.”

While silly and perhaps reductive, it’s not bad advice. Maybe the first thing to do is know what it is you’re trying to create and what it might look like. The rest is just practice.

Questions for you

  1. How could better writing help to solve a problem that your team faces right now?

  2. What would it mean if everyone on your team could send any idea through time and space with no loss of fidelity?

  3. What is one investment you can make in your own writing, and what do you want to happen as a result?

Lead image by Midjourney AI