How I Write Simply

The following is advice I have offered in the past to folks on my team struggling with their writing at work.

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Write foremost to be understood, not praised. If you truly connect with your audience, praise will follow.

Write as if you’re writing to someone in your life that has no idea what you do. I pick my dad. He should be able to read my materials and at least get the gist.

Write your materials to be read by someone at the client who hasn’t touched or heard about the project yet. Give your materials context and tell the story of what’s happening. It should make sense to the uninitiated.

How my third-grade teacher taught me to structure my writing (this is almost always better than whatever structure you dreamed up):

  1. Tell em what you’re gonna tell em. (this could be a setup slide or 1-2 sentence intro in an email, also don’t forget an exec summary in longer docs). Go meta. Step outside what you’re writing and be self-aware. “Sarah, this is an email where I tell you what I heard and you tell me if I’m headed in the right direction. Don’t be too polite with your feedback. I can take it.”
  2. Tell em.
  3. Tell em what you told em. (the longer the email or doc, the more important a short summary is)
  4. Finally, tell em what happens next. (always include a few bullets on what typically happens next or should happen next)

Write in the first and second person to keep it direct. “You feel this. You hear that. We will do all the things.”

Write in active, not passive, voice. “Sally eats the hamburger.” vs “The hamburger is being eaten by Sally.”

You can break grammar rules, sparingly. You aren’t writing a technical paper. You can start sentences with “And” or “So” if they read well out loud.

Don’t use buzzwords, even if the client does. Even in docs you’re prepping for them, write out the acronyms they use. You’d be surprised how many clients don’t actually know what the buzzword means, but were afraid to ask.

Bullet points and single-sentence lines are your friends. Big chunks of text are exhausting.

Keep your sentences short and to the point. Be like Hemingway and Amy Hempel.

If you’re struggling to describe a complicated idea, do what Richard Feynman did to become one of the greatest teachers in all of science:

  1. Write down a plain English description of the concept as best as you can. Imagine that you’re trying to teach it to someone wholly new to the concept. If you’re having a hard time writing it, step away from the keyboard and talk it out. Then write down what you said.
  2. Review your description and look for any areas where you felt uncomfortable, where you relied on referencing another concept (that your audience wouldn’t necessarily know), or where you used technical jargon. Go back to the source material, re-read, and re-learn it.
  3. Now rewrite.
  4. Review your description again and look for places where you lazily paraphrased the material or were needlessly wordy. Simplify and clarify.
  5. Lastly, find a compelling analogy to make the concept even more approachable and understandable. This is the hardest step because it truly tests your grasp of the concept. As an example, here’s Richard Feynman explaining how we perceive “hot” and “cold.” Analogies are superheroes. They make the complicated simple and compelling.

Read your own writing and rewrite it. Only assholes don’t edit. If it’s something important, I’ll actually look at every word in every sentence and ask if that word is essential or not. If it isn’t, I delete it.

There’s a story I heard once about a famous author who, when he’d finish a manuscript, would tape it on the walls of his office and run across the street with a telescope so he could only look at it one word at a time. Craft demands obsession. Be obsessed.

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