Part 0: BLUF
This post explores some reasons to invite more writing time into your life’s journey, and some tactics for using writing to up your personal and professional game, even in an era of tighter timelines and shorter attention spans. Summary in blue.
Part I: Some reasons to love writing
Anyone who knows me also knows that I am a sucker for the written word as my primary form of communication. It’s not that I forego other communication styles. When I consider my family, friends and colleagues, I just have a higher tendency to put my conversation into a written form. When I say “written”, I mean writing that is beyond a Tweet, chat or SMS “text message.” I tend to choose expository writing as a preferred communications mechanism in an era when most people seem to prefer smaller, bite-sized communications like chat apps, “water-cooler” meetings or phone/video calls.
Taking the time to write (and it does take more time) benefits my overall communications approach in life. After all, there are still plenty of people who enjoy reading, so the written word must still be a thing, write? (ok, puns are polarizing, but I couldn’t resist – can we still be friends?). Let’s review some of those bennies, ey?
Cohesion is all the rage in software development, so why not consider cohesion in our conversational world? When I talk with someone, the topics tend to meander. They start with the weather, migrate through health and career and end up with “have nice day.” Now, I am not going to pretend that my propensity for writing directly correlates to cohesion, but if cohesion could be seen as a sliding scale, then, when I write, the odds of delivering a more cohesive result are higher. I’ve gotten better at translating this ability into conversations as well, but just the process of writing (good writing requiring rewriting) tends to yield improved cohesion. I can convey the message I intend, and there is less chance of forgetting to mention the important points along the way.
When I strike up a conversation, it’s not good form to “dig in.” There’s this process where we are expected to dance around substance and stay superficial. There is some of that in writing, but for some reason, when writing I feel more emboldened to lay out the intent and get to the substance of the conversation much faster. It cuts down the time asking about the weather or sports (I wouldn’t know a sport if it beat me over the head anyway, so lets just get to it, shall we?). It works the opposite direction as well. Other people talking to me seem to stay superficial until I am just about to say goodbye or hang-up, then people will suddenly raise what they REALLY wanted to talk about. I didn’t need the lead-in. When people write to me, they tend to ask the question up front. Me likey.
First and foremost, in the chaos that has become the norm in our distributed web of services and responsibilities, keeping things in writing affords me a couple memory benefits:
- First, provided I can remember WHERE I wrote something down (outside the scope of this article!), I have a record of exactly what I said. I’ve found the “amber glow” of our analog memory tends to change as time goes forward. How I wrote something and how I remember writing it after some time has passed… those can be very different.
- Second, by taking the time to write something down — simply because it takes extra effort to distill down the messaging, to prioritize the points and structure the result — I tend to more accurately remember things BECAUSE I spent that time engaged in those activities. If I have to rely solely on conversational memory – it’s not going to be the same ride.
Sure, people can write an email that says “this is off the record.” But, it is on the record. Writing puts conversations “on the record.” In my professional life, this is a must have. In personal life, there are some advantages as well.
- Think First: Conversationally, some people will heave words around like they don’t matter, they will speak hypocritically, they will say whatever it takes to get what they want. Some people will do this in writing, also. I know younger versions of myself put all kinds of things in writing, but by having it in writing I was able to learn about how I was sabotaging myself. Putting things in writing gives me a chance to think before sharing the results. Is this really what I want to say? Putting things in writing gives me a chance to think about the impacts of what I say. If I read this the next day, would I still agree with it? Putting things in writing lets me try on my empathy hat. If I received a message like this, how would I react to it? Is this how I want to deliver this message?
Writing lasts a long time – it can last thousands of years, maybe longer. What do I want to “go on record” as having said to my family, my friends, my fellow human beings and even to the space aliens?
- Justification: Writing can be cited. I can use my previous writing and just link to it. I can use things people have put in writing and respond to it or use it to further a point or further a requested action. In this way, writing becomes a gift – we can pick up from where one or more written words left off, and move forward from there. Writing becomes a building block – one that can exist conversationally, but is a lot more reliable once written down (“yo, remember when you said you’d back my start-up?” “nope, bro, don’t remember everrrr saying that!” The end. Shoulda had that in writing. Womp.)
- Historical/Herstorical/Themstorical1: We used to pass down history conversationally. See how that went. Yeah. . .all our best mythos movies are based on that stuff. Writing isn’t perfect. I’ve previously discussed how we have entered a new age of truth-seeking due to information overload, but still, with expository writing (and other forms such as academic and technical writing) we have something to sort through and consider when building our personal truth and making decisions. Recently, I’ve been writing more to my parents and my children because I know, conversationally they might enjoy the message, but later, I can zip that up and gift it to the next generation. They might burn it for warmth, or they might read it and maybe it will help them make some decisions on their journey. It might also come in handy for my long anticipated autobiography.
- Legal: I am not an attorney, OK? OK. Now that’s settled, writing is a lot easier to prove than a conversation. Keep in mind, writing is no guarantee because before you can use writing in court, it has to be admitted as evidence. That’s part of the legal chess game and just one reason why attorneys are so important when dealing with the legal system, but I can say this… if you do NOT have it in writing, your position will be a LOT harder to prove.
Part II: Writing approaches for a modern world
Writing, however, cannot be the only tool in the toolbox. Here’s some more: In-person communications, teleconferencing, video conferencing, vlogging, presentations, chat applications, emails, customer relations management systems, software and project management systems, e-commerce platforms…oh yeah, and that stuff called social media. There are more ways to connect and engage than we can easily count. I have over 200 logins that I manage to different systems and a high percentage of those have a coms component to them. Probably 20 of those are just different email accounts!
Writing, then, isn’t just a great way for me to communicate, it’s also part of my personal organizational strategy. It’s a work in progress, but thought I would share some ways I use writing in real life to up my game.
Where to write
I mentioned earlier about finding my writing. There are so many options, we really need to consider where is the best place to keep different types of written information. I have this cascading approach to information: I’ll first think of something I want to create/save, then I will think of the utility of the message and figure out where to best actually store it.
- For example, this blog post. At first, I felt like opening my personal journal. I was legit-curious why I like writing so much. Then I thought of the utility – maybe it is something I could share more broadly. Ultimately, I decided to share this as broadly as possible and a blog post was the way to go.
- At the office, sometimes I will mash away at the keyboard on a chat utility answering someone’s question, then realize, this belongs in the hands of the team at large. I’ve got several information radiators available (I don’t like any of them, but the organization owns them and people more-or-less know how to use them). For example, if it is organizational and non-technical information, I will post it on our internal blog site. If it is technical documentation, it will go where the devs live on the wiki application. I usually promote that stuff using email or a chat post.
- People love to stuff things in emails – I have to frequently ask folks to update the wiki or post it in the knowledgebase where others can find it.
- Tasks get tracked in a tasking app and I have to ask people to extract their comments and promote those to a shared location where the info is more accessible/maintainable.
That’s just a handful of examples. It’s a matter of what software or platforms resonate with you, what’s immediately available, and the target audience of the content. Email, as popular as it is, is not usually the best place unless the information is specific to that audience. The ability to keep the information organized (categories on my blog, folders for SharePoint pages, hierarchies/tags for Confluence articles) might also be an indicator of the best place for it to live longer term.
Talking after writing
Sometimes, I know in advance that I want to have a conversation about a topic. I know what questions I want to ask, I sometimes know the intended outcome (Sometimes not). Even though I cannot send the intended audience an expository piece, it can help me mentally organize my position if I write about the topic beforehand.
Many times, new ideas will emerge: problems I hadn’t previously considered, solutions, potential pitfalls to avoid in the discussion. By writing, I have a chance to explore the conversation before it happens. By the time I actually have this conversation, I have explored the territory in advance, I am better able to address the topic answer and answer questions. Sometimes I can even distill things into bullet-points or a cheat sheet, so I can make sure I stay on target during the discussion.
After the conversation, I can return to my writing to see if my perspective has changed. After all, a conversation is not always about being heard, it’s about listening. There are many times I schedule conversations simply to try and understand a topic and help resolve a challenge or conflict. Sometimes I have a solution in mind, but by the time I am done listening, it turns out to be the wrong answer.
A little off-the-path here, but it is a funny observation: people are discouraged from changing their positions. To “flip-flop” is a sign of weakness, to be undecided is … well, just read Hamlet if you want to see where indecision can lead us. Even though there is some truth to the plight of Hamlet, there are still situations where actively listening and internalizing what people are telling me causes a 180-degree shift in my thinking. We have to remain open to this change of perception. If things are written down along the way, we can go back and explore these perception changes and maybe derive a more solid position or rationale based on the information going forward.
Writing after talking
Other times, I will wander into an unexpected conversation, or someone will catch me off guard with a question I am ill-prepared to answer. These are good scenarios for “writing after talking.” Again, taking time to explore the topic, for much the same reasons as above. It often leads to some form of output:
- An email back to the person or people with whom I had the conversation, summarizing things and planning next steps
- A bit of expository writing which I can then use, as above, to have a follow-up conversation
- An answer, posted for the broader team in an appropriate information system
- A blog post. Say what? That never happens.
Writing without delivering
Conflict isn’t the only use case, but it provides a pretty good one for this method. Let’s take a situations which has lead to conflict, frustration, injustice or angst. I have more I can write about these types of situations, but focusing on the writing method, the goal is to not say anything stupid while in a moment of conflict. In a professional setting, I try to be really careful about letting the emotional temperature get anywhere past warm — I want people to feel understood and to express themselves, myself included, but it can degrade into a hostile work environment very quickly if not managed carefully. I will usually give frustrated people an out by breaking up the meeting with an offer to reconvene later, or if it is me having the frustration, I will find a way to excuse myself even if it means stating, “I know we need to talk about this some more, but I need a few moments to gather my thoughts.”
“Writing without delivering” to the rescue! Email is the typical go-to, but word to the wise, do not fill in the TO/CC/BCC lines if you type things up in an email. There’s nothing worse than sending an unintended email of this kind! In fact, depending on the sensitivity of the topic, one might consider a password-protected document. With this type of writing, I mash out all the “righteous” thinking, let my lizard brain and ego have a hay day, ignore my “politically correct” filtering: just get the energy and ideas out and into a document. This activity is like unclogging a drain – once all this gunk is out of my system, my mind is free to reinvent itself, heal and think more productively. Sometimes I review the writing right away, other times I review it the next day to intentionally create emotional distance.
With these type of messages, a few things can happen:
- Time passes and the situation evolves. By typing an unsent email, I restore my ability to be objective or be a source for conflict resolution.
- Time passes, and the situation is abated. This happens quite frequently – without me saying anything, sometimes the situation self-resolves just by me getting out of my own way. I can delete my rant and call it a day.
- Time passes and the situation goes unaddressed. Sometimes, that’s OK, but if I think it should move toward a more structured/formal outcome, I can sift through my message for the material facts and either soften the message to a professional level, or write something much shorter to address just the key points. Sometimes, just by contemplating the challenge, the audience for the message changes as well – I might think I need to reply directly, or I might think I need to escalate, bring in more people, get a third-party opinion (sometimes via conversation before addressing the writing).
Point is, by creating space to go write, I have also created more options by which the situation can be addressed and/or resolved.
People can and do have the ability to focus, it’s simply the tempo of modern life means we have less time to demonstrate value. Expository writing is longer than a comic strip or a motivational quote, so below are tactics I typically use to either get folks reading, or make sure when they skim they walk away with the gist I wanted to convey.
- TLDR / BLUF: Most folks are familiar with TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read), less are familiar with BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). If what I am writing is over a paragraph or two, I will usually do a one or two sentence BLUF for folks who are not going to read a wall of text.
- Executive Highlights: I will highlight key points (thank you dev team) using a different font weight and color, so folks who skim my writing can take away the top nuggets and drill into details as needed.
- Attachments: In general, people do not open attachments. Sad, right? I have seen emails with super long threads and the first thread refers to an attachment clearly nobody has opened. They just riff for weeks. On many occasions I have opened said attachment, resolving weeks of issues in a few minutes. The sword here is double-sided: When sending an attachment I hedge in the message or follow-up with key folks via chat/call to get them to open the darn attachment. When receiving an email with an attachment, I open the attachment before hitting reply (#checkthepowercable).
- Podcasting & Vlogging: Expository writing is a great way to lead into podcasting and vlogging. Rarely is it a good idea to read a script verbatim, but some audiences prefer something they can play or watch while commuting. It’s been a while since I have produced visual media, but the recommendation is, when communicating with a visual audience – give them thoughtful visuals to go with your material. They don’t have to be fancy, one of my LinkedIn faves, Moe Choice, uses a darn flipchart and waves his hands a lot. It works!
- Breaking things up: Expository writing can be a great way to map out a cohesive message, then it can be broken apart and distributed in chunks via other social media platforms.
Well, time to copy and paste this into Twitter. Not. Thanks for reading and happy expository writing!!
1 With the advancement of gender considerations in language, I often ponder what will happen to some of these words. Luckily, English is a lot less gender-heavy than other languages, but perhaps in the case of “history” or “historical”, we could just settle on “istory” (“is a story” vs “his story”) and “istorical.” Easy enough, yah?