2021-01-05 communicationepistemologybest

Why write, and how you can improve at it

Here is a short email I wrote to our company at work.

As an engineer working on our data infrastructure, I primarily spend my days improving the quality and timeliness of our data, as well as delivering data-driven insights and reports.

Today, however, I’m not going to talk about that at all!

Instead, I’m going to talk about one technology in particular that I’m especially excited about.

It’s one that’s been in the works for a very long time. In fact, over 5,000 years! What ancient technology is this?


In today’s morning email, I want to make the case for writing as a technology and how it can propel both you and our company toward new forms of growth.

Interested? Come along!

1. Why write?

Writing sounds like something you “get for free” just by growing up in modern society. Surely everyone knows how to write! We do it all the time.


Writing is very much a skill, and one that can be improved over time. Here are some reasons it’s a skill worth developing:

The benefits of writing are immense, and if you get in the right habit, the costs can be very small (and only get smaller over time).

Well, if you are thinking, that is all cute and dandy, but Alex – what do I actually do to write better?

I am by no means an expert, but over the years I have curated some techniques that I will summarize below.

2. Writing technique

> Process

Writing in many ways mirrors the general creative process.

  1. Brainstorm. Before you build a house, you need materials. Here, you throw a bunch of ideas against the wall. Anything goes! Write down everything. You can use a napkin or a whiteboard or a list of bullet points. At this point, it is truly an unsightly, discouraging mess.

  2. Outline. After you’ve collected the raw materials, you need to erect the scaffolding of the house. This composes the “structure” of what you are trying to say. All the bullet points are slotted into a couple of main section headers or themes. If a bullet doesn’t fit anywhere, don’t just shove it in. Leave it out and save it for a rainy day. After the outline, you should be able to clearly explain the “main points” of what you are saying.

  3. Write. Now, you fill in the house. The bullet points and half-sentences finally develop into full-fledged sentences. They don’t have to be perfect at this point. This stage is all about “fleshing out” half-baked notes and ideas.

  4. Edit. Finally we’ve reached the most important stage. You will be tempted to keep everything: “well I spent all that time thinking about it, shouldn’t I keep it in?” No! If any sentence fails to clearly advance your argument, get rid of it. Readers (including colleagues!) tune out very quickly if they suspect you’re wasting their time. Every single sentence must earn their attention.

Upon completing this four-stage process (sometimes called the madman-architect-carpenter-judge), you should end up with a “thesis”, or well-articulated opinion. There is a clear narrative – a clear story – in your thought process for why you arrived at the opinion you did.

If you still harbor doubts about what you are trying to say, return to step 4.

At this point it might be clear that writing is somewhat more involved than tapping away at keys on a keyboard. Indeed, writing is an effortful process. It is about going back, and going back, and going back once again to see if you were as clear and concise as possible. If you do invest the time, more often than not, the product is one you can be proud of.

> ADEPT, and Form vs. Function

While you hone your writing process over time, there are still two things to keep in mind.

The first is that writing is ultimately designed to communicate. It turns out there are tried-and-true methods for how to effectively communicate ideas. One is an acronym called ADEPT:

The second point relates to how you communicate. We can nail the content (function) but botch the delivery (form).

Does your writing engage the reader? Does it surprise them? Does it upset them? Here we consider not what the reader will think, but rather what they will feel.

3. Writing and you

Well, if you’ve stuck along this far, thank you!

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that writing is important and, with a bit of attention to technique, easy to improve.

If you are convinced, you are in good company!

Jeff Bezos (Amazon) is famous for banishing all PowerPoints and replacing them “6-page memos”. Why is that? Because you can be far more precise and granular in a memo than in a slide deck. Six pages (max) forces you to be concise.

Of course, many CEOs are famous for their writing. Just in finance, we have Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Cliff Asness (AQR), Howard Marks (Oaktree Capital) or Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures). After you read their writing, you feel like you really get to know who they are and how they think. That is the power of writing!

Although I spend most of my days writing code, this is only composes a small portion of what I do. Code turns ideas into reality, but writing enables me to convey and defend ideas. And that is a skill I’ve found very much worth investing in!

Thanks for reading! Have a good week everyone.