The Craft of Writing Effectively, a summary

October 08, 2020 - 6 min

There is a pervasive idea about writing which was largely imparted through our education: from school essays and dissertations, all the way to PhD theses and academic papers, we’ve been taught to write by following a specific and standardized format in the hope to convince and convey that we understand the topic.

In academia, and probably in any field where innovation and research occurs, writing also becomes a tool for thinking.

However, this projection of the writer’s thoughts about the world is not effective when readers become part of the picture.

Diagram showing the interaction of writers and readers

Disclaimer: this is a summary of the video LEADERSHIP LAB: The Craft of Writing Effectively and all the credit is due to Larry McEnerney. The mistakes are mine however.

This lecture deals with the challenges faced by expert writers — people who write in the capacity of being an expert on a given subject. It is not about learning a set of rules like one would use to write company memos. Even if we were accomplished experts in our fields, there is nothing wrong with learning how to write effectively now.

The fundamental problem

Because of our education, we would generally approach writing as a way of conveying our thoughts about the world. Unlike at school where teachers are paid to care about our writing, the outside world will not care at all if our writing is not valuable to them.

The common advice goes that our writing should be clear, organized and persuasive. Let’s consider:

  • clear and useless = useless
  • organized and useless = useless
  • persuasive and useless = useless

The missing piece is that our writing should first and foremost be valuable. This is the the ultimate discriminator for our writing.

However, the perception of our work’s value is not up to us, at least not entirely; the outside world, the readers, the community decide whether our work is valuable to them. They decide whether they should bother reading more than the first two paragraphs.

That means that approaching writing as an exercise to please a standardized and hypothetical reader like you would for a test or an exam at school is likely to fail. Likewise, approaching writing as a demonstration-of-our-understanding through explaining is not valuable because “no one cares about the inside of our heads”.

What matters is the effect our writing produces on the reader. Writing is not about conveying our ideas about the world; rather, it is about changing our readers’ ideas about the world.

On content

It would seem reasonable to think that because we deem our work to be important, new and/or original, our peers will find it valuable. The importance of our work can only be seen through the community for which our work would matter. For example, we could observe a random fact about our immediate surroundings that no one else in the world would know:

There are 8 books in the shelf in front of me.

Robin Cussol, October, 7th 2020

But is that valuable? Does that constitute knowledge? Unless we’re part of the community of people who care about the number of books in people’s shelves, our reaction would likely be: “Who cares?”

The communities decide whether something is valuable to them or not. The communities decide whether some piece of information is knowledge or not.

Important. New. Original. What makes it valuable?

Each community has codes that signal value. To write effectively, we must know these codes.

Larry McEnerney offers this tip: we should dedicate 15 minutes a day to read articles in our field with the intention of identifying these code-words that signal value.

As we go through this exercise, we should constitute a list — the invaluable list — of these words. We shall then use that list to transform our own writing: we read our own work, we try to find these code-words in it; if we can’t, we should spend some time inserting them in. It’s sometimes that simple.

On knowing our audience

Our contribution is unlikely to provide value and be persuasive without prior knowledge about our audience. It’s not enough to be a subject matter expert; we need to know our readers.

Even though that may be morally or ethically questionable, we should give the readers what they want. The function of our writing is to help our readers understand better something they want to understand well. It’s about moving the discussion forward in the community.

It’s not about preserving knowledge indefinitely: what constitutes knowledge changes over time, depending on the community members who come and go and who decide about it. Our writing should not stay in our pile of unfinished drafts just because we fear it won’t be good enough for it to be read in 500 years. (Spoiler alert: they likely won’t read it in 500 years anyway).

Just because we wrote something does not mean the community will appreciate it. Just sharing our thoughts and feelings will not accomplish anything on its own if it does not affect our readers’ thoughts.

How can we hope to persuade them without knowing what our readers believe or doubt?

On the Craft of Writing Effectively

All along, we’ve been taught to follow the Martini glass model: we start in our introduction with generalizations, background information, definitions and the thesis. We then go into specifics in our development and offer some other generalization as conclusion to our piece.

We don’t want to do this.

We would instead want to start with exposing a problem that the reader is likely to care about. It could be about understanding a topic further or about fixing some particular issue. The point is that the problem should be exposed through the community’s scope, localized to their language and preoccupations.

It only makes sense to provide a solution once the problem has been stated. It becomes clear whether it’s a solution because the problem has been made clear.

This problem usually arises from exposing some instability that triggers questions of cost/benefit for the reader: this instability might incur a cost to the reader if unaddressed or would provide benefits if it is solved.

In that sense, our introduction should build the problem and create tension in the reader. If we’re instead providing structured and solid foundations, it is hard for the reader to figure out why the rest should matter to them.

The instability can be expressed through two types of languages: the language of gap, in which we strive to fill a hole, and the language of error, in which we strive to correct existing knowledge.

The language of gap is usually the least confrontational, but in an infinite model of knowledge, it does not offer intrinsic value: people won’t care because we filled a hole in their knowledge that had no significance to them anyway.

The language of error can be more difficult to master because you don’t want to alienate your readers when you claim their thought leaders are wrong. It is however the most effective at creating instability because the stakes are much higher if the readers and their thought leaders are indeed wrong.

For our introductions to be complete, our target readership should be made clear by expressing who is/should be concerned with the problem we just exposed.

In a few sentences

  • The only measure of our work worth considering is whether the community for which it was made finds it valuable.
  • To signal value, we should look for and adopt the hidden rules of the community.
  • It follows that we need to know our target readership to ensure we give them what they want.
  • To captivate their attention, we should start by exposing a problem for our target readership and outline cost/benefit considerations.

Feel free to look through my rough notes or have a look at the video. It is well worth the watch since the lecturer’s delivery is formidable.

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    Personal blog written by Robin Cussol
    I like math and I like code. Oh, and writing too.