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TLDR: easy writing makes for hard reading; invest in editing and treat your reader like a customer
Best ideas don't win. Best communication of the idea wins, as do the people behind them.
The most powerful communication tool might be a clever meme these days, but at work, it’s still the written word. Writing well supercharges your trajectory. Yet great writing is rare. Why?
Turns out we’ve been taught some things that simply don’t apply:
Writing well lifts many boats: emails, scoping docs, strategy docs, analysis, resumes. We’ll cover how to rescue bad writing, then how to upgrade from good to great.
Treat writing like a product
What’s the biggest difference between great writers and all the rest? It’s not talent, it’s treating the process like a product.
Your reader is your customer. Your first draft is pre-MVP. To get to a quality shippable version, you need to iterate, aka edit.
Amount of editing time depends on importance and length. A status update might require 10 minutes, but a strategy doc closer to a few days.
Your first draft is your R&D: get ideas on paper and clarify your thinking. Your subsequent drafts are marketing: edit from your reader’s perspective to make your points persuasive.
Start with your point
Bad writing is hard to follow because it’s stream-of-consciousness which tends to leap around. Ironically, the magic of creative thinking comes from leaping and making unexpected connections. But to be appreciated for its brilliance, creative thinking needs to be translated into coherent writing.
Ideas are generated bottom-up and sometimes sideways, but they need to be communicated top-down.
Coherence starts with making your point upfront. If your goal is to solve a problem, start with stating it simply (e.g., sign-up conversion dropped to all-time low of 2%). If your goal is to provide an update, start with the most important change.
Answer the question: why should I continue reading this? People need context, but before that, they need to know why they should care.
Read like a skeptic
Bad writing is logically unsound. The points are disconnected from each other.
Example: we have low retention, so we should email more — this might help, might hurt; impossible to know until you define retention, diagnose the root of the problem and review impact of existing emails on retention.
Your points should fit like a jigsaw puzzle, each connected to another.
Read like a skeptic. Ask: So what? How is this related? Does this make sense? at every turn. The clearer your writing, the fewer interruptions need to be made downstream in the form of meetings and back-and-forths. Clarity gives you leverage.
Make it skimmable
One of the first lessons they teach in consulting 101 is to expect that your reader is busy. Use headers, selective bolding and bullets to make your message loud and clear. When you make it skimmable, it’s more likely to be read in full.
Easy on the eyes, not an intimidating wall of text:
Kill your darlings
Every word should serve a purpose. Every sentence should make you want to read the next one. Prime darlings to kill: words that are redundant and weak.
Redundant words say the same thing twice. Examples: “new invention, “rival competitor”, “actual fact”, “very unique”, “all throughout”. They bore your reader and bloat your writing.
Weak words lack meaning and specificity. If it’s not moving your argument forward, it’s holding it back. Examples: “nice”, “really”, “very”, “thing”, “amazing”
At this point, you’ll reach a good baseline. To get to great, we need some extra spice.
But and therefore
A well-known storytelling rule: use “but and therefore” instead of “and then” to create action and tension. This same principle helps you tease out nuance.
Version A: “We want the customer to feel X, but right now they struggle with Y, therefore we need Z”.
Version B: “We want the customer to feel X, and also they struggle with Y, and by the way, we need Z”.
Version A gives you the space to diagnose the struggle, and lay out cause and effect. It frames the narrative persuasively. Version B throws too many seemingly unrelated things together. It puts the burden on the reader to untangle what’s really going on.
Not surprisingly, people who use “but and therefore” tend to be perceived as more senior than those who use the more simplistic “and then”. Framing matters.
Color and emotion
Clear and concise writing gets you access to the mind, but color and emotion gets you access to the heart. To make people excited to act, paint a vivid picture of what can be created.
Customer quotes underscoring the pain of the present are a great starting point. Then bring in colorful details of what they can feel and become as a result:
We are asking a lot from our customers. We are asking them to spend hours a day in a new and unfamiliar application, to give up on years or even decades of experience using email for work communication…
To get people to say yes to a request that large, we need to (1) offer them a reward big enough to justify their effort and (2) do an exceptional, near-perfect job of execution.
The best way to imagine the reward is thinking about who we want our customers to become:
We want them to become masters of their own information and not slaves, overwhelmed by the neverending flow.
We want them to feel less frustrated by a lack of visibility into what is going on with their team.
We want them to become people who communicate purposefully, knowing that each question they ask is actually building value for the whole team.
Source: Slack CEO
Another approach is to name your future customers and describe how your product enhances their life. Work backwards from the future.
Words to charisma
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a delight to listen to. His secret: he’s written down pretty much everything he says in public. By battle-testing words on paper first, Neil is far more eloquent when he speaks.
You can do the same. The cycle of writing and editing prepares you for real-time moments in interviews and meetings especially if charisma doesn’t come naturally.
Writing is the meta-skill of the modern workplace. Easy writing makes for hard reading, so instead of aiming for easy, invest in the process of editing.
Start with unrestrained creation, and end with ruthless deletion until there is nothing more to take away.
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