Explaining problems better

Here are 5 questions I’ve been thinking about a lot as I seek to explain problems better (no shortage of ongoing issues :-))-

1. What is the problem?

2. Where does it lie?

3. Why does it exist?

4. What could we do about it?

5. What should we do about it?

I’ve been finding it helpful to just write out my answers to these questions and then rearrange them in some version of “Situation-Complication-Solution.”

The principle here is to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process. And, the first step to separating the thinking process is ensuring the thinking is done in the first place.

(H/T Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle for recommending these questions when approaching problem solving)

Committing to rewriting

When we write, the first draft is simply a crystallization of our thinking. The first draft, in essence, is for us. The challenge with writing well is rewriting that first draft with our audience in mind. Doing so helps us separate the process of thinking from the process of writing.

While this sounds simple in practice, this turns out to be very hard. As Barbara Minto articulately describes – “Once you put ideas in writing, they take on an incredible beauty in the author’s eyes. They seem to glow with a fine patina that you will be quite reluctant to disturb.” 

This is true – at least in my experience.

One approach to solving this problem is to lay out your thought process on a piece of paper before writing. That, however, may not work for everyone. While I’m keen to test it, I’m not optimistic about my attempts to do this well.

The alternative solution I’m more hopeful about is to start writing by making a strong commitment to rewrite as soon as I complete the first draft. Setting this expectation will hopefully make it easier for me to not get lost in the “glow” of my first draft.

Here’s to experimenting with both.

PS: Thankfully, the tools we use today are perfect editing and rewriting. It is a pity if we use our current suite of editing tools like typewriters.

Content, Structure, Structure, Delivery

In the age of 6 page memos and product press releases (thanks Amazon), writing has become a core skill at work. Great professional writing brings together insightful content, a logical structure, and good delivery.

Insightful content is what gets us through the door when we write. This is different from public speaking as you can get away without saying much and still give a good speech. Insert a few jokes, say things your audience want to hear, and you could give a good speech. But, writing well is much harder than speaking – your content shines through (or not).

Assuming you have insightful content, the element that most gets in the way of good writing is a logical structure. While many labor under the assumption that they’d be better if their grammar, vocabulary, and language was better, “delivery” generally helps move very good writing to great writing. Structure is what moves you from passable to very good.

The challenge with structuring documents is that our first draft is often our first attempt at thinking through the idea or question at hand. And, once we put our ideas down, the initial structure becomes art that mustn’t be tampered with – in our minds. That, then, gets to the challenge of good structure – we need to find ways to either separate the thinking process from the writing process by structuring our narratives upfront. Or, we must write our first draft and then do a complete rewrite by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience.

I expect to write more about structure as I spend more time learning how to do so. However, the first step is improvement is awareness. Today’s takeaway is simple – when you write next, obsess about structure.

Separating the writing from the thinking

“For the average business or professional writer, producing more literate memos and reports does not mean writing shorter sentences or choosing better words. Rather, it means formally separating the thinking process from the writing process, so that you can complete your thinking before you begin to write.” | Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle

I’ve decided to spend more time learning how to write better and thought “The Pyramid Principle” and “The Elements of Style” would be my go-to textbooks for the structure and style portions of this journey respectively. But, as Barbara Minto thoughtfully points out, we often confuse feedback in our ability to structure our writing as feedback to our style.

Structure is the first summit to conquer. To do so, I’ll need to do a better job separating the thinking process from the writing process.

High standards and writing great memos

Jeff Bezos, in his latest letter to shareholders, had a great note on what he’s learnt about great memos.

Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a  high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

There are two things I took away from this excerpt and the letter. First, it is fascinating to see the parallels between delivering high standards and approaching learning like a chef. To develop high standards, we must first learn to break things down to first principles, understand what “good” is and develop realistic expectations for what it takes to achieve them. For example, once we approach build new habits from a first principles perspective, we realize that the expectation that we can build a new habit that matters in 21 days automatically sets us up for failure.

The second lesson is about the difficulty of writing well. As Bezos notes, writing well is a product of revisiting and rewriting. In that sense, writing well is a lot like building a new habit – committing to something matters a lot less than constantly re-committing to it.

Un catchy titles

Everyone is fighting for your attention. One way to win this fight in the short term is to make every title a catchy title.

“Here’s what you need to know NOW.”

“Click this to learn the real secret of success.”

“You won’t believe what happened in XYZ yesterday.”

“ABC and DEF have declared war on each other.” (you’ll click to find out they haven’t)

Some of these catchy titles are, in fact, untrue. So, you realize you’ve been played all along. That, in turn, adds some distrust in the system and so on. But, the media companies will say they don’t have a choice. They do – but it isn’t an easy one when your business model is built on people clicking your articles. The catchy title fight is, thus, a street fight fought in mud and slush. Everybody involved gets dirty.

But, you and I don’t need to play that game.

We have the choice to just write about what we want to write about without trying to con folk into clicking. Yes, less people will see our work today. And, yes, we’ll have to do all that work to earn an audience (assuming that’s what we want) over time.

But, the folks who will have visited will have come seeking to understand what we’ve written. And, thus, we’ll have given ourselves a shot at actually reaching and, maybe influencing, the kind of folk we want to reach.

Everybody wins when that happens.

Dealing with writing frustration

When folks learn of a daily learning blog, one of the common questions is something to the tune of – “How do you think of an idea every day? Does it get easier over time?”

On the whole, yes. It certainly feels much easier to write now than 8 years ago. However, every once a while, there are days like today when no idea really seems good enough. I’ve played around with 5 post ideas in the past 15 minutes and nothing really seems to work. It can be downright frustrating.

I have come to find that this sort of frustration is caused by one thing – wanting to write as quickly as possible so I can move onto something else that is on my mind this morning. Calm and mindfulness facilitate good writing. And, in a state of mind like the one I am in right now, the more I try to push a post through, the less my muse cooperates.

The solution at such times isn’t to give up – it very well could be though. I’ve just found that it matters that I just keep writing. Write, then delete, Then, write again. Eventually, there comes an idea worth sharing.

And, when even that doesn’t work, write about the process.

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