We all make typos, but have you ever made a typo that cost $150 million dollars? In 1962, NASA launched their first ever probe to explore Venus, the Mariner 1. About 90 seconds after launch, problems arose. With navigational controls compromised, a destructive abort command was issued, and the craft was destroyed near the five minute mark.
Many theories arose for the reason of the failure. The famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke called it, “The most expensive hyphen in history.” He was right about a typo, but it was more nuanced than that. The real typo was a missing overbar in a smoothing function used by the guidance system to adjust for minor variations of velocity.
Typos are just one of many plagues that invade our writing. Certainly there have been many times I have added an extra semi-colon in code, mistyped simple words, or butchered entire sentences. Especially in a language like English where rules come with many exceptions, it is easy to make mistakes. Just look at all the controversy over the Oxford comma.
Grammar and typos however are only a small part of a bigger problem of writing that is so low quality that it costs America nearly $400 billion every year. It’s a provocative statement, but you can make a compelling case that poor writing skills is a soul sucking, economic wasteland. The readers of such dreck would agree, as 81% of people in a survey agreed with the following statement, “Poorly written material wastes a lot of my time.”
Marketing departments are perhaps the most obvious perpetrators of bad writing. The rise of inbound channels and content marketing has produced an endless stream of whitepapers, blog, newsletters, and social media posts in the attempt to make their respective companies appear like thought leaders. Yet all they are producing is reams of product centric jargon laden with buzzwords and business speak.
Poor writing however is an affliction that infects every nook of an organization. Crimes against the English language are being committed daily. Reading the copy I see in most sales emails and proposals leaves me stunned, wondering if the sender ever wrote anything during all their years of college. I already touched upon the dumpster fire that is developer documentation, but most written assets created in the product development lifecycle are challenging to read.
I do not mean to be so negative, this should be a wakeup call. What we write matters. If we cannot clearly and concisely convey our ideas, effective communication or collaboration is impossible. All we create is confusion and chaos. Good writing saves us from lost time, angry confrontations, unnecessary work, and avoidable mistakes.
How do you do being to improve your writing skills? A good starting place is this writing framework from Harvard Business Review:
Plan what you will write before you write so your words logically flow.
Keep sentences short and concise to convey one idea or point.
Strive for clarity by avoiding jargon and “fancy” words.
Resign yourself to the belief you can’t write. Anyone can improve their writing.
Pretend that your first draft is acceptable. All writing requires editing.
Bury your ideas. Lead with your main points as soon as possible.
There are also many specific rules around spelling and grammar that are easy to confuse. For example, it is common to see errors with subject-verb agreement. Another common mistake is mixing up the use of words like “that” and “which” or “affect” and “effect”. I make plenty of basic mistakes like putting “their” when I meant “there”. Don’t try to rely upon your brain to catch these mistakes, use tools like Grammarly to help catch these gotchas. Amazon’s Fact of the Day One blog also has some great pointers that you can review (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
"Good writing is good conversation, only more so."
The most important lesson however that I learned about improving your writing is to find your unique voice. As Hemingway says, the mark of good writing is that it feels natural, like you are speaking with someone. You do not want to sound like a brochure, nor pretend you are some self-important big wig. That leads to the type of content that sounds robotic and uninspired. Your writing influences others when you bring the authentic you and weave your personality into your writing.
How do you find and unleash your inner voice? You write more often, so much so that you make writing a habit. Part of that can be daily journaling, which helps unlock ideas stuck in your head. Many people dedicate either early morning or just before bedtime to write for a set amount of time. Others are more spontaneous and jot down ideas throughout the day. I generally have a notes app open so that I can record and flesh out thoughts as they come to me.
By far the most impactful way to become a better writer however is by sharing your writing in public. Taking inspiration of influential bloggers Fred Wilson (Founder of Union Square Ventures) and Dharmesh Shah (Founder and CTO of HubSpot), I started a blog to help build up my credibility as an angel investor in the rapidly growing NYC tech community. I wrote nearly every day. Not all of it was great. In fact a lot of it is embarrassing to read now. However, it succeeded in raising my profile in the startup community, and more importantly, vastly improving my writing.
A decade later, I am still writing regularly. There is this newsletter and blog for developers, IT managers, and engineering leaders. I also distribute a newsletter for the 15,000 members of the Enterprise Sales Forum community. In addition, I write for the AWS Startups Blog and published a book last October called Community-in-a-Box. Taken altogether, I have written close to 1,000,000 words in the past three years across those assets, all available to the general public.
Writing in public is a forcing function. It forces you to think more, edit more, and reflect more on your writing. I have even reversed my thinking on a few occasions because the clarity that came from expressing ideas in a written format. Putting your work out into the world for anyone to read also keep you accountable. Many of the comments and feedback I have received helped to further clarify my ideas and the wording I used. Along the way, you become a better writer and you grow in your confidence.
My past writing experience has helped immensely in my work at AWS. Writing is a critical component in how Amazon operates and makes decisions. Meetings begin not by talking, but by reading a prepared document anywhere from 2 to 6 pages. Only once everyone has read the document does the discussion begin. When any new project or service is proposed, the first asset created is not a presentation with bullet points, but with a PRFAQ (press release and frequently asked questions) document.
Why do we use the long-form, narrative style? Because writing full sentences and paragraphs paints a complete picture of the ideas being communicated, nuances that are missed in bulleted lists.
We also see writing as a superpower at Amazon. Good writing has the power to open doors, build influence, inspire others, change minds, and launch movements. It shows you are a problem solver and thinker, a distinction that is critical when you engage with decision makers. Writing well speaks volumes about your credibility and competence when important decisions are being made from what software language to use on a project to deciding on important IT purchases. Every major initiative at Amazon, whether a new service, program, or mechanism, starts with a well composed written narrative.
Do you feel writing could be your hidden superpower to influence change in your team? What is the importance of writing when it comes to decision making in your organization?
Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS
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