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The Utility of Writing

Surprise—the guy who’s kept a blog for over a decade1 and spends most of his work hours inside of an email client thinks that writing is important.

But while reminiscing about the role that writing plays within engineering organizations, I come across this Twitter thread from Steven Sinofsky, someone whose previous jobs includes running the entire Windows division at Microsoft. He would know a bit about communication within large organizations:

The entire thread is quoted and annotated here 2.

The two takeaways from those notes—which I readily agree with and should have written down myself sooner—are that:

  1. The act of writing is a forcing function for clarity of thought, and
  2. Structured paragraphs and narratives are a fantastic form of asynchronous communication.

Clarity via the written word is a time-tested technique. It forces the abstract to be concrete; the act of having to provide a description or an explanation means that the topics need to be fleshed out properly, a couple of steps removed from that primordial soup of ideas floating in our heads. Writing also forces a level of structure, which in work-terms usually translates to providing context to aid in business decision-making. Even taking the effort to produce a first draft or a document just meant for self-reflection confers a lot of these advantages, so it’s not surprising to hear of folks writing down memos as an exercise in thinking, only to never publish it or show it to anyone else. Research even suggests that the act of writing is a viable therapeutic tool.

Well-considered long-form prose, on the order of articles and documents, is one of a multitude of ways to communicate3. The stewards of the medium—formerly books and magazines, eventually electronically via blogs and the much-maligned email memo—are considered passé in the face of real-time chats and persistent conversations and 280-character4 tidbits. Slack gets you there faster, more conveniently, and with a prettier UI to boot.

But there is something unique and valuable about writing deliberately. It feels like an application of the slow movement, where the space and time provided to construct a narrative bestows a weight and significance that makes the work worthy for consumption. Yes, real-time chats are immediately responsive, but the tradeoff is usually impermanence, fleeting snippets of conversation that never quite coalesce to a greater sum. A well-written technical specification can become exemplary for future documentation; chat logs are destined for blocks of hard drive space in a backup data center.

So yea, if you’ve read this far, it’s not a surprise that I enjoy writing and happen to think it’s an important skill to master. It’s an extremely effective mode of communication, one that may be less utilized in an Internet era incentivized for quick action, but that just means that the ability to write well is an under-appreciated differentiator.

  1. There were a small number of semi-public blogs I kept before this one.

  2. Some of this rumination on writing seems to be prompted from Jeff Bezos’s annual shareholder letter, and Steven wasn’t the only commentator who appreciated the craft of writing.

  3. Off the top of my head: comments in forums/news feeds, real-time chats/messaging, actual chatting, drawing, post-it notes, non-verbal cues, etc.

  4. That still feels weird to call out.

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