Writing at Your Company

Writing as a tool for thought.

Jul 1, 2021 | Business

Writing Brings Clarity and Organization

Good ideas don’t come from 5-minute conversations. They need time to bounce around in your head, time to bring up objections, time to work through objections, and time to determine if they’re really worth any effort at all.

The problem is, none of these things can truly happen without writing the idea down on paper.

I don’t think you really want the ideas that spring from short meetings or quick conversations. These ideas aren’t fully thought through. You want your problems to be looked at from different perspectives, and the objections to your ideas uncovered and dealt with. This is what writing allows you to do. By putting your thoughts into a physical form, you get a different perspective that shows you where your argument is weak and where you need to do further research.

We have a habit of making big decisions in meetings. Meetings are not a normal environment. They favor those who talk fast and have a lot of confidence. And more importantly, the context of the discussions being had is not fully explained, so people don’t feel confident weighing in since they don’t know the whole story.

As I was reading about this topic, Paul Graham published an essay titled “Putting Ideas into Words” in which he explains the power of writing better than I ever could. I encourage you to read the whole thing right now, because it’s critical to buying into this whole idea.

Let’s look at two key quotes from his essay: “Half the ideas that end up in an essay will be ones you thought of while you were writing it. Indeed, that's why I write them." Writing naturally expands your thoughts on a subject.

"If writing down your ideas always makes them more precise and more complete, then no one who hasn't written about a topic has fully formed ideas about it. And someone who never writes has no fully formed ideas about anything nontrivial." Graham takes the power of writing to its extreme. Do you want your ideas and plans to be fully formed? You have to write about them. This is why I write out my business reports instead of using PowerPoint slides. As I write, I naturally find gaps in my understanding.

I’ve been thinking about this subject for weeks, but the thoughts came to me in bits and pieces. I never had a stream of consciousness that created a 3,000 word idea until I sat down and wrote this article.

Writing doesn’t just bring clarity at an organizational level. It can help individual workers understand their tasks and how they spend their time. Let’s look at how Basecamp does this: "Every workday at 16:30, Basecamp (the product) automatically asks every employee “What did you work on today?” Whatever people write up is shared with everyone in the company. Everyone’s responses are displayed on a single page, grouped by date, so anyone who’s curious about what’s happening across the company can simply read from top to bottom. And if you have a question about anything, you can comment on anyone’s “what did you work on today?” check-in to keep the conversation in context.

This routine is about loose accountability and strong reflection. Writing up what you did every day is a great way to think back about what you accomplished and how you spent your time."

Writing Helps New Workers

I took over many of Matt Noble's responsibilities. I often wonder how many things he learned that I now have to learn myself because there is no public record of them. So much of his knowledge is gone. Locked away behind his instant messages, or with him at his new job. How many mistakes could I have avoided if I could search through his chats when a question arises? Or read documents he wrote about his experiences? I look at some of the work he did and it doesn’t make sense to me. What if there was an article he wrote about these projects and why he made certain decisions? It would help me fill my role better. Additionally, the company paid him to learn all these ideas, and now he’s taken all that value with him. The company now has to pay me to learn the same things. It’s tragic that information isn’t passed down.

The critical idea is that access to messages is only the first step in good communication. It would be great to see the conversations of my former boss but there are many conversations that I don’t need to see, or that are useful but hard to parse when messages are sent one sentence at a time. That’s why writing is important. Writing is the deliberate curation of ideas that are important. Ideally, you would take the general idea of your instant messages and turn it into a concise document explaining what was decided and why.

The example above is job-specific, but there are higher level ideas that this applies to as well. Company strategy and values are all sent through email, so there’s no historical record of them for new employees to access.

Writing Builds Connections Between People and Departments

A lack of sharing between departments causes an extreme lack of perspective. You can be doing your job well, but you don't know how it affects others, so you cause them to do extra work to correct what you do. You optimize your work, but you don't optimize for how your work affects others. However, it’s true that departments don’t need to know everything that’s going on in other departments. That’s where writing comes in. By writing curated reports or high-level memos allows departments to share what they’re working on without having to CC everyone in the company on every email they send. It’s a curated view of what everyone is working on.

A flow of information also helps us avoid resentment.

“Why hasn’t that department responded to our email?”

If you have no idea what that department is working on, you probably just assume they’re lazy or completely inefficient. However, if you’ve read their weekly update and know they’re launching a big product at the end of the week, you’re more likely to understand their lack of communication and put your email in the correct perspective.

There’s this idea that any time you’re spending reading about other peoples work is time you could be spending doing your own work. But that completely ignores the fact that our work is all dependent on others to a certain extent.

There have been numerous times when someone has come to me with a thought or idea and I’ve told them: “Actually, we are working on that right now” or “We thought about that and didn’t decide to do it because of X, Y, and Z.” Why didn’t that person know about these conversations? How many duplicate ideas do we have? The danger of not collaborating is that other people might have the crucial idea or viewpoint that makes an idea work.

There’s another aspect to writing that can come from a culture of writing in your organization: social connections. With the increasing number of workers moving to remote positions, it’s become harder to build relationships with coworkers. Basecamp, a fully remote company, tries to encourage community by giving writing prompts a few times a month that are purely for social connections. For example, they might ask “What books are you reading?” Or “Try anything new lately?” Or “What did you do this weekend?” These questions give insight into your coworkers. Insights you don’t glean from meetings about product development or email automation. These might again seem like a waste of time, but I’ve found people are much more comfortable collaborating on tasks if they have some level of social rapport.

Writing Levels the Playing Field

By writing ideas and decisions down, and sharing them with everyone at the company, you allow people from all departments and levels of authority to weigh in. This gives everyone power and lets good ideas naturally come forward. Many times, if you are at the lowest end of the totem pole, you hear the outcome of decisions when you’re directed to work from them. However, you have no voice when the decision is being made. This cuts out many employees who have valuable insights to give, since they are the ones that end up working on the projects.

Even if it’s someone from a different department that has no real experience with the work being done, I think they still have an important piece of value to give: an outside perspective.

Writing Takes Complete Dedication from the Organization

Building a culture of writing isn’t easy. It’s a lot more convenient to share information ad hoc. That’s why it takes complete dedication from the top of the company to the bottom. Writing is hard, and does take away from other things you should be doing. The key is a true belief in writings power to improve the productivity and decision-making of the company. If you don’t believe in it’s power, the cost will be too high to allow.