On Writing

I write. A lot. Given that I’m a management consultant, that rather comes with the territory. I could probably equally describe myself as a “professional writer” instead of “consultant.” My primary work products are documents, reports, presentations and emails. And while I have no idea of my actual rate of production, it’s a lot. A slow week might be 20,000 words; in a busy one, I might write 50,000 words. On Tuesday, I finished up a 40,000 word deliverable that I started writing on Saturday.

That’s not to brag. It might sound like it, but that’s not actually my intention. Nor is it the point of this article. But words are my business. Stringing them together into coherent thoughts, framed into well-formed sentences and structured into comprehensible paragraphs and sections is the focus of many of my days, most days that I’m awake.

At this point in my career, I am relatively proud of the writing I do. I have good days, of course, and I also have bad days. There are days when the words flow faster than my fingers can keep up, and there are days when I struggle to put one word after the other. More importantly, there are days when I’m able to eloquently express the essence of what I want to communicate. And there are days when even when I know what I want to say, the words that come out are barely intelligible. So far, so normal.

What’s interesting in all of this is how my view of what constitutes good writing has changed, and with it the way I approach a writing assignment. My writing has evolved over many years. My process of writing has evolved as well. What most particularly has changed, though, is what I value from writing.

Like most, I started writing in school. High school essays turned into university papers. Most recently that turned into a doctoral dissertation. When I started, I was taught proper sentence structure, paragraph structure and composition. The value of an outline was hammered home. This was to be followed by a detailed outline, followed by a first draft, followed by an edited draft and finally wrapped up with a final version. I resisted most of this.

I’m not even sure why I resisted, necessarily. The me of my teenage years probably would have argued about stifling creativity. Some might call it laziness or procrastination.At this point in my life I’m as likely to chalk it up to sheer bloody-mindedness. Nonetheless, I pretty much avoided anything that actually looked like process. Writing didn’t happen until it was ready to come out, and when it did it was likely to come out in full form. Editing was minimal. The assignment got handed in. I moved on.

School segued into the world of business. First as job seeker, writing resumes and cover letters. And then as employee, writing reports and memos. Somewhere along the way I got introduced to the idea that business had a language all its own. And, given that I often worked with computers, that technology had its own language, and far more acronyms.

This is where my writing first changed significantly. I tried to write in the language of business. Or at least, what I interpreted the language of business to be. Words grew syllables. Sentences got longer (and longer). An example of an actual sentence (chosen largely at random): “Benefits to the expenditure must exceed the cost of the capital project and provide an expected rate of return which is at least equal to the corporation’s composite cost of capital.” Disturbingly, I was probably really proud of that sentence. What’s possibly most reprehensible is that I actually got compliments on the quality of my writing.

The astonishing thing about that sentence is that it is technically not wrong. It makes an important point. It just sounds like gobbledy-gook. But what, you ask, does it actually mean? And how might you re-phrase it? The answer is pretty simple: “Projects need to make more profit than it costs us to borrow the money to pay for them.” Makes sense, right? In fact, it’s perfectly logical. Almost self-evident.

I was reminded of this through a confluence of events over the last few days. First, the aforementioned deliverable. 40,000 words sounds long. It’s actually the shortest I could make it (so far; I might be able to prune it a bit more with another edit). And it was written to be clear, concise, simple and easy to understand.

Doing that took a lot of work. It’s actually easy for me to write in long, obtuse, run-on sentences. A little too easy, if I’m honest. Writing for clarity and comprehension takes a lot more work. It requires conscious thought. I quite literally work through a thinking process that goes, in my head: “What am I trying to say? How can I say that as clearly as simply as possible? OK, but is there a way I can make it even clearer?”

The deliverable in question? It’s a business case. It’s audience is an executive team that will be asked to make a decision that will cost the organization tens of millions of dollars, and set its future for the next decade or more. Now, you might think that this would be exactly the audience that wants flowery, obfuscatious business language. You would be wrong.

Writing for executives is an interesting challenge. They are smart, talented and capable; that’s how they got into the role in the first place, for the most part. That they don’t have a lot of time is largely beside the point, although it’s true. They are looking to plainly understand complex situations. They need to be able to grasp the essence of a situation, understand implications and comfortably make a decision. That decision usually involves less-than-perfect information, so the information that they do have needs to be as understandable and digestible as possible.

That’s not to say that effective business writing means simplifying what’s being said, or dumbing it down, or leaving out the important bits. In fact, the opposite is true. They need to understand the complexity and nuance. But that means that the nuance can’t be hidden; it needs to be stated in as straightforward a fashion as possible. If there are risks, problems and unknowns, they need to be identified and enumerated. Possible benefits and opportunities need to be acknowledged and discussed. Unresolved tensions and open questions need to be highlighted.

The challenge is that writing, especially in English, can easily be very nuanced, subtle and circuitous. It’s one of its virtues, and it’s one of its frustrations. A case in point, I actually found myself writing this sentence this week, at the same time I was wrapping up my business case: “Just following up on our previous conversation about getting this resolved, have you been able to connect with [person] and confirmed his willingness to provide hands-on support for any changes that might be needed during this?”

Now, that’s not unclear sentence. But it is an evasive one. It’s a lot less obfuscatious than my previous three attempts at a sentence. And what was I getting at, really? In essence: “Have you talked to so-and-so, and is he actually going to cooperate in working with us?” While that might be the direct meaning, it’s more than a little forthright. In the wrong context, it could be considered hostile (or at the very least dismissive). To avoid confrontation, we soften the statement. Softening the statement, though, also risks greater misunderstanding. Or the question actually being ignored.

My favourite example of the week, though, was a comment that appeared on a recent article I wrote. I’m not going to call out the particular sentence that made me raise my eyebrow (and doing so would be somewhat unfair, in that English is clearly not their first language). But the writing, quite frankly, reminded me of how I used to write back when I was starting out in business. Long, rambling, run-on sentences using complex, not-wholly-relevant words. “Purple prose,” as my wife used to dismissively (but not inaccurately) call it.

Writing clearly is difficult and complex. It takes time and effort. Clarity of expression starts, of course, with having something to say. Often, I would argue, that’s the first problem. If we’re not sure what we’re trying to say, there is a very real risk that we’re going to ramble around until we sort it out. A favourite quote from Neil Gaiman (who also happens to be a favourite author) is: “I write because I want to learn what I think about things, and I write fiction because I want to find out what happens next to the people in my head.” And that’s a very awesome thing to do. But unless we write as well as Neil Gaiman (and most of us, and most particularly me, don’t) then once we’ve figured out what we think, we should probably take the time to write it out again before we share it with anyone.

The other part of writing clearly is taking into consideration our audience. Who are we actually writing for? Why are we writing for them? What action do we need them to take (or are they wanting to take that they are asking for information to support)? What do they know? What do they need to know? How much needs to be explained for them to understand the implications and expectations? This is the hard part of writing well. Knowing who will read what we are writing, and why they are reading it, is fundamental. And if we’re not clear about that, then the risk is that we think we are writing for everyone, which usually means that we say nothing to anybody.

Structure plays a huge role in communicating clearly. I have gotten over my miscreant youth, and will now create a structure for most things that I write (particularly if it’s a customer document). Depending upon the document, there are traditional structures that work well. The essentials of storytelling, for example, rely on a three-act structure of setup, confrontation and resolution (this has been more humorously described by many as “in the first act you get your character up a tree; in the second act you throw stones at him; in the third act you get him down as gracefully as possible.”) This structure actually plays out in any number of business documents and reports as well, and shapes many templates that we take for granted.

That’s not to say that we can’t take liberties or be creative with the structure. But doing so should serve what we are trying to accomplish. In considering what structure we need, we should also recognize that structure isn’t about making documents easier for us to write. It is about making the document easier for our audience to read and digest. The headings of a document help us to understand where we are, what we are doing, and what the information represents. The key is finding a structure that works.

In the business case I just finished, for example, the outline started with headings like “Background,” “Objectives,” “Critical Success Factors,” and “Strategic Alternatives.” And while there is nothing inherently wrong with those, what I actually wound up going with was far more direct and to the point about what each section said. They headings in the final report read “Where did this come from?”, “What are we trying to accomplish?”, “Why is this important?” and “What will a good decision look like?” I’m not making my audience translate a generic title into some semblance of meaning in the context of this document. Instead, I’m doing it for them.

The goal is a document that is easy to read. The amusing and ironic aspect of this is that has the corresponding impact of being harder to write. We wind up needing to put a lot more of ourselves—our thought, our effort and our focus—into writing something well, so that someone else can readily absorb and take in what we’ve written.

The easier it is for us to write, the harder it often is for someone else to make sense of. The more care we put in to writing for our reader, the clearer and more concise we can be. This takes work and effort, but the rewards for doing so are so much greater. This is exemplified in a quote that has been variously attributed to Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal and Johann Goethe: “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” We produce something that we can be proud of, and our audience receives a result that speaks directly and wholly to them in a way that they can understand, absorb and digest.

One Comment to “On Writing”

  1. Mary Beth Kelly says:

    Excellent article Mark — great examples and key points to keep in mind!

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