The Craft of Writing Effectively

August 12, 2020

Writing - some of us are good at it, and some of us are not. However, the measurement of being ‘good’ at writing is a useless one. The yardstick we use to measure writing is “effectiveness”. As is any form of communication. For writing is a form of communication. Or is it?

Imagine my pleasure and excitement when I came across this lesson on Youtube - The Craft of Writing Effectively by Larry McEnerney of the University of Chicago? This lesson was targeted at graduate students (and leaders) on how to write effectively in the real world.

In service of learning in public (another one of my personal improvement projects), here are the notes I took while listening to this lecture and its sibling lecture “Writing Beyond the Academy 1.23.15”. Even if you find these notes useful, I strongly recommend you take the time to watch the lecture.

Notes from The Craft of Writing Effectively by Larry McEnerney

On thinking and writing

Out in the real world, we think when we write, as we write. We think our thoughts, our ideas, put it in written form and put it out in the world. Our writing may contain new ideas, original ideas, ideas and thoughts of great import.

On reading said writing

However, the mindset - when we read is not the same as when we write. It does not matter how ‘qualified’ the reader is. You yourself read differently compared to writing.

The reader, wants to know “What’s valuable to me in this piece of writing”. The reader does not care about YOUR new original idea. The reader cares about HOW DOES THIS PIECE OF WRITING ADD VALUE TO ME?.

Adding value to a reader

There are two ways to add value to a reader

  1. Show them that they have a problem, an instability, an issue in their life which they didn’t know about. And provide a way to make it more stable

OR

  1. Give them a tool to help with a problem they already have.

That’s it. Those are the only two ways you can add value.

Some examples of showing the reader a problem, and what their reaction is:

  • “Oh gee! I didn’t realize my communication skills were this bad. Thanks for giving me a way to make my communication better.”
  • “Oh wow! I didn’t realize that I don’t understand how markets work! Thanks for writing this book to educate me on market design”.

And some examples of writing to help the reader with a problem they already know they have.

“I would like to be more succesful. Thanks for the 10 things successful people do each morning.” “I am working on getting my point across better. Thanks for helping me write more effectively”.

Rules of writing

That’s it. A reader will read what you write - if and only if they find it valuable. Or if they get paid (like teachers who get paid money, or friends and family who get paid via obligation).

What about all the other rules of “good” writing? Like

  • clarity
  • organization
  • persuasiveness
  • tenses
  • slang / no-slang
  • short sentences vs long sentences
  • complicated vs simple language

All these other rules of writing are extras. They are akin to salting your food.

We are told to write simply, use short sentences, be concise, stay away from acronyms. But what is concise writing? Concise writing is not fewer number of words - it is writing where the reader has to put in a lot less effort to understand what they want to understand.

If your work is not valuable to a reader, however elegant or ‘right’ or original it is, they will not read it - (unless of course, you pay them with money or approval or social status). All these other rules are about improving your writing once your value is in, in making reading a relatively easy and pleasurable experience.

A big caveat to this: SPELLINGS MATTER!

So what is writing anyway?

So, we circle back to the question - what is writing? Writing is NOT conveying ideas, slinging thoughts from my head to yours, its not ‘communicating’ - Writing is trying to change the readers minds, their ideas.

We don’t want the reader to read, think ‘that was nice’ and go on with their lives. Candies do that. We want to CHANGE their mind. We want them to convince them of something, tell them something, show them something, take them somewhere, try to influence them to do something.

And what is effective writing?

Effective writing is writing that changes the reader’s minds, which moves a conversation forward, that which makes the reader better understand what they already want to understand.

So how to write effectively?

So, when you write something or read something always ask two questions:

  1. Who is the reader?
  2. What does the reader care for? Value?

Knowing the reader

Knowing who the reader is going to be - is essential. Why?

We all form communities, tribes around certain ideas. And each tribe has its own code, it’s own language, it’s own rules, it’s own signaliing and values. When you write using the code of your reader, using the language of your reader, you signal intrinsic value.

Consider the language of corporatese vs. engineeres vs. doctorese. The language of silicon valley vs. wall street. Each of these have their own acronyms, their own meaning of commonly used words, which if used the wrong way, changes the meaning.

Why do this?

It is a subtle way to prove credibility - to say “I know you folks. You are awesome. You have done so much great work. However, there is this one small thing in which you are wrong!”

And let’s face it. If you have credibility, your opinions, thoughts and writing are more valued.

So you need to be valuable to the reader. You can only be valuable when you know what the reader cares for, what they value. You also have to signal belonging to their community. For this, you need to know, understand the reader’s tribe, their language.

Language, trust

To write effectively, you need to have good language. Language is NOT rule following. It is understanding how readers read.

Language is a relationship between people. And these people do not trust you. You have to earn their trust, prove your credibility before they will allow you to change their minds.

How to change reader’s minds?

Ok. so we know who the readers are. We know their codes. We are using their language in their writing. We have tools which will be valuable to them. So now, how do we change their minds?

By not explaining. Don’t explain your points to the reader. You are not explaining to a little child.

You need to argue for your points, like a lawyer. You are challenging their points of view - but inside the terms of the reader’s community - following their rules, using their language. And why will they listen to you? Because you are credible. You have earned credibility by listening and reading them, appreciating them, using their language and rules.

Tags: public-learning, writing

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