Writing It Down

Writing to supercharge your organization

May 31, 2022   |   Business

If I told you to build a writing culture at your company, I expect the first response would be, “We don’t have time for that.”

Of course, your company has time, but the implication is that writing does not bring enough value to justify placing it on the business chess board. It’s hard to tie writing directly to revenue and quite easy to tie it to salary expenses.

While writing does not directly generate revenue, it can change how people work—giving them a better understanding of the company, clear documentation for their tasks, and deeper connections with their coworkers.

If all of this seems a bit “Silicon Valley woo-woo-y” to you, I get it. Giants like Amazon and Stripe, and small startups like Cocoon and Levels, all speak about the power of writing. But it’s probably much easier to find time for writing when you work 12-hour days and don’t rely on making a profit.

However, there’s a company that flies in the face of all Silicon Valley stereotypes while still finding time to write. Basecamp, a remote-first software company, is not a Silicon Valley superstar. Employees only work 40 hours a week (32 hours during the summer), the company has never gone public, and they’ve been profitable every year in business.

And they write. A lot.

So much so that it has become part of their business. Basecamp has released five books, written mainly by its founders.

But the founders aren’t the only ones that write. They’ve made it clear they respect the written word, and most of their communication happens through writing.

If you’re skeptical, then this article is for you. I want to show how writing brings significant value to your organization by elevating your collaboration, strategic thinking, and efficiency.

Writing is the grease that makes the cogs turn smoothly. Here’s how.

Writing to Help Others - Documentation and Project Reviews

“If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.”

— Lew Platt, ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard

I took over many of my former boss’ 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 taken with him to his new job. How many mistakes could I avoid if I could read about his experiences? I look at some of his work, and it doesn’t make sense to me. What if there was a memo he wrote about these projects and why he made certain decisions? It would help me do my job. From the company’s perspective, they 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 a losing situation.

The critical idea is that I don’t need to see everything my boss ever wrote. A log of his chat messages would be helpful but hard to parse. Structured writing lets you deliberately curate important ideas. Ideally, you would take the general concept 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 sent through email leave no historical record for new employees to access. Business strategies covered in meetings without notes are gone forever, with no way to reference them.

All these things need to be written down. Just completed a website redesign? Write an explanation of what you changed and why. Sending out a memo on the direction of the company? Put it somewhere you can view it forever. Answering questions in a meeting? Make sure those questions and answers are written down for future reference.

If you think this seems like a waste of time, think about all the time it will save because confused employees won’t have to ask the same questions over and over again. And lessons learned won’t have to be relearned anytime someone steps into a new role.

All of this leads to fewer ad hoc meetings and confused chat messages. When you do have meetings, they will be leaner because everyone will be on the same page and won’t have to work through what you’ve already decided through writing.

“I vaguely remember a conversation about that”

I hear this, and say this, all the time. It usually comes after one of these statements:

“What did we decide about that?”

“What was the reason we didn’t do that?”

“How were we supposed to set that up again?”

If only there were some way to record our conversations so we could reference them later.

Talking in person helps someone today. Writing the answer down helps someone today, tomorrow, next month, and next year.

Writing to Build Connections - Team Reports, Status Updates, Meeting Notes

“An error occurs when an individual employee looks at their finite view and assumes that is all there is and proceeds to create solutions with that view. Or, identify problems with just that view. Or, unwisely, jump to conclusions based on that view. You should always seek to look over the horizon, and expand your view.”

— Avinash Kaushik, How To: Be A Good Employee, Be A Great Boss

Context is everything. That’s why the free flow of information is so important. Employees can’t make the best decisions without the full context for their tasks, projects, and work with others. They simply don’t have the necessary information.

Ignorance can’t create wise workers.

And that’s no fault of the workers themselves. They just haven’t been enabled to do their best. That’s why information flowing freely throughout the organization is so important. When everybody sees everything, everyone has context. And everyone is on the same page.

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 for yourself, but you don’t optimize for the big picture. However, it’s true that departments don’t need to know everything that’s going on in other parts of the company. That’s where writing comes in.

Just like I don’t need to see every message my former boss ever wrote, I don’t need to learn about every little thing the IT department is doing. However, it would be a good idea to know what they’re working on at a high level. 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. Everyone still gets information, but only the summarized, valuable versions.

This is how you avoid information overload. Every department posting every conversation would get overwhelming quickly. And much of what a department does isn’t applicable to others. So how do you keep everyone in the know without overload? Summaries.

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

“Imagine a basketball coach in the locker room at half-time. He calls the team’s center into his office to talk with him one-on-one about the first half, and then he does the same with the point guard, the shooting guard, the small forward, and the power forward, without any of them knowing what everyone else was talking about. That’s not a team. It’s a collection of individuals.”

— Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Marketing doesn’t do its own IT support, Sales doesn’t create its own products, and Product Development doesn’t do its own marketing. Everyone has to work on the same team towards the same objective.

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.

What are you guys doing over there?

“Why hasn’t that department responded to our email? It’s been four days!”

If you don't know what that department is working on, you probably just assume they’re lazy or 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.

Writing also has the secondary benefit of easing the tempers in a room. With writing, you might initially get mad, but you have time to sit, recover your composure, and send a message that’s much less inflammatory than what you would have said in a face-to-face meeting.

We have a hard time disagreeing with someone because we want to do so in a way that makes our point clear but doesn’t hurt their feelings. That’s a really hard skill to master. Chances are, we won’t get it right if we have to do it on the spot. Writing it lets you adjust your wording until you find the right balance.

As for talking things out, I agree that’s a great way to communicate certain things. But only certain things.

In-person conversations are far from a perfect form of communication. Writing fills the gaps that conversations create. Conversations let you convey emotions, read the other person, and generate thoughts quickly. These are all great attributes for intense arguments or free-form brainstorming. However, conversations do not allow you to refine your ideas or document them for the future.

Remote Relationship

Another benefit of a culture of writing in your organization is social connections. Unfortunately, building relationships with coworkers has become more challenging with the increasing number of workers moving to remote positions.

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 that people are much more comfortable collaborating on tasks if they have some social rapport. There’s also interesting research that shows that belonging at work has real business benefits.

Leveling the Playing Field

Writing ideas and decisions down, and sharing them with everyone at the company, allows people from all departments and levels of authority to weigh in. This gives everyone influence 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 who end up doing the work.

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

Writing to Think - Ideas and Decisions

“The limits of writing push us toward greater clarity of expression, and, consequently, greater clarity of thought. Of course, this isn’t a necessary outcome, lots of writing can be just as jumbled as our thinking. But in my own head I can convince myself that I know more or less what I mean and I’m not forced to put my thoughts in an order and form that would make them intelligible to someone who can’t simply intuit what I’m thinking (and, honestly, a lot of our own thinking is not necessarily propositional anyway). So when we are forced to encode out thoughts intelligibly into the written word, we are forced to clarify, which means that we might catch our own errors or inconsistencies. It may also mean that the focus we are exerting will push our thinking further down paths we might not have come to otherwise.”

— L.M. Sacasas, L.M. Sacasas on instant messenger over instant messenger

This article is much better than when the ideas started forming in my head. It isn’t perfect, but it certainly has fewer logical flaws, more in-depth research, and clearer reasoning. This is due to it being written, not just thought about. I could never create a 3,000-word stream of consciousness that made this much sense.

Your business decisions deserve this much attention as well.

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 worth any effort at all.

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

Our minds are experts at making us think we know everything about a subject when we really only know a small part.

For example, go back to your college days. Did you ever sit through a lecture, confident you were taking in every word the professor said, then found yourself unable to explain the lecture to someone the next day? You were so sure you understood the subject, but when you were put to the test, the ideas just didn’t come out.

I don’t think you really want the ideas that spring from short meetings or quick conversations. These ideas aren’t fully thought through. Instead, 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.

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 is not fully explained, so people don’t feel confident weighing in because they don’t know the whole story.

Even if you have days to think over an idea, if it just exists in your head, it probably sounds much better than it actually is. By putting your thoughts into a physical form, you get a new perspective that shows you where your thought process is weak and where you need to do further research.

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 for 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.”

— Paul Graham

“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.”

— Paul Graham

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 my business reports instead of 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.”

— Jason Fried

Wrapping It Up

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 need to do. The key is a true belief in writing's power to improve the productivity and decision-making of the company in the long run. The cost will be too high to allow if you don’t believe in its power.

Even if you think it’s important, it will be really hard to implement. It causes short-term pain, the type of pain we avoid most.

Additional Reading

Writing in Public, Inside Your Company - Brie Wolfson

Now that you’ve heard about the power of writing, you might be wondering what it actually looks like in practice. The second half of this article gives specific examples of what writing looks like in a business setting.

Putting Ideas Into Words - Paul Graham

Most of my thoughts on writing to think were heavily influenced by Paul Graham’s article that was published while I was writing this. He explains the value of writing better than I ever could.

The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication - Basecamp

Basecamp compiled a document that contains its rules for internal communication. It reads like a collection of opinions on organizational communication and asynchronous communication, with specific examples of each.

Principles of Effective Communication - Levels

There’s a part two that’s equally good.