The Craft of Writing Effectively, rough notes

October 08, 2020 - 5 min

Disclaimer: these are rough notes about the video LEADERSHIP LAB: The Craft of Writing Effectively and all the credit is due to Larry McEnerney. The mistakes are mine however.

Top down approach (bottom up is too focused for freshmen)

Writing program was to help faculty

There’s nothing wrong with learning how to write, even if you’re an accomplished academic/professional.

Not about learning rules like you would use to write company memos

Expert writer = somebody who writes in the capacity of being an expert on a given subject

Unlike journalists, you would use writing as a way to help/improve your thinking. Thinking is only possible through writing at that “level”. Use your writing to help you think. If you don’t do it, you cannot think at the level you need to think.

Journalist needs to report about something, not to think new ideas.

The course is about the specific challenges of writing as a tool for thinking.

Diagram showing the interaction of writers and readers

Even if the text produced through writing-as-thinking is meant to express thoughts about the world, the interaction of the readers with that text must be taken into account for the success/reach of that idea.

  • Your writing “interferes” with the readers.
  • The readers need to slow down.
  • It’s easy for readers to misunderstand/not understand/skip.
  • They get aggravated.
  • Then they’re done.

In an academic setting, academics/teachers are paid to review/read texts from grad students, other academics’ papers because they are paid to do so, they’re paid to care about your writing. The same cannot be said outside of academia.

Beyond school, no one’s paid to care and read your stuff. It must be valuable to your audience.

Your writing needs to be clear. Your writing needs to be organized. Your writing needs to be persuasive. Above all, your writing needs to be valuable.

Valuable is the final/ultimate discriminator. The rest does not matter. Clear and useless = useless; organized and useless = useless; persuasive and useless = useless.

Misconception of where the “value” lies; not in the world, but in the readers! It’s much more about readers than about content.

Not thinking about the readers when committing to writing is probably one of the biggest challenges to be faced.

You’re not writing for a standardized reader, like you would write for a test/an exam.

When somebody says they don’t understand, do not explain. Do not do that.

You explain to your teachers because they want to know whether you understood it. Explaining as demonstration-of-understanding is what we’re usually taught at school, and we conflate it with explaining. “No one cares about the inside of your head”.

“You think that writing is conveying/communicating your ideas; it is not.”

Rather, it is about changing their ideas.

It’s a mistake to want to explain first. Explaining should only come when being challenged, when value and persuasiveness are being challenged (i.e. prerequisite that they’re present)

You’re not here to do original work; you’re here to do valuable work. New = observing some random fact about your surrounding that no one else in the world would know; valuable?! Who cares. It’s not knowledge.

Some group of people, changing over time, decides what constitutes knowledge.

“Best practices” do change over time, ideas are constantly challenged and under pressure of being declassified as knowledge.

Important. New. Original. What makes it valuable?

Communities have codes that signals value. And you must know these codes.

Dedicate 15 minutes a day to read articles in your field and try to identify these code-words signalling value. Constitute a list — the invaluable list — of these words, to transform your own writing: read your own work, try to find these code-words in it, and if you can’t spend some time inserting them in. It’s sometimes that simple.

This goes back to learning/knowing your readers! It’s unlikely to provide value/be persuasive without that knowledge.

Persuasion relies on what they doubt. If you don’t know their doubts, how can you hope to persuade them?


It’s not enough to know your subject matter, you need to know your readers.

Signalling community who wants to understand what you’re writing: widely, accepted, reported

Flow/Transition/Link words (nonetheless, however, although) preserve Flow — they have nothing to do with value

Need to know the code; you can’t say that the community or dominant figures in the field are wrong if you want to attract their attention. Sing their praises and recognise their value to the community and then offer a contrarian point of view (which you should be prepared to argue about — not explain)

In a few words, the course is about giving the readers what they want, which can have a host of ethical issues associated to it.

The function of your writing should to help your readers understand better something they want to understand well. How you fulfill the function is irrelevant (structure, etc)

You write to think, but don’t complain that you have no readership. “They won’t appreciate it just because you wrote it.”

The function of your writing is to move the discussion forward within the community; it won’t do it if it stays in your desk drawers. It’s not about preserving knowledge indefinitely.

Your writing is a way to participate in the world, not by sharing your thoughts or feelings, but by changing other people’s thoughts and feelings.

Our training from school is to think of writing as a way to expose our inner world to the outside.

The job of an academic is to change what’s happening between the inner worlds’ of the community members.

Knowledge is becoming commoditized, so relationship to knowledge is similar to wheat to farmers, coal to miners.

Anomaly, inconsistent, but, however, although → instability

  • Create tension, challenge, contradiction

Martini glass model of writing: start with generalizations, background, definititions and the thesis. Then argue about specifics and offer another generalisation as conclusion.

  • You don’t want to do this.

You should start with exposing the reader’s problem or at least through the scope of something they care about.

  • understand for academics
  • fix something
  • locate the problem in specific reading communities

Then move onto the solution (clear it’s a solution, because problem was exposed previously).

Two characteristics for the problem:

  • instability (very different to Martini glass model whose introduction is nothing but stability)
  • Cost/Benefit (use the instability to expose that this incurs a cost to the reader, or conversely, if it’s solved, it will offer a benefit)

Literature review

  • enrich the problem, by creating tension (moving towards a sense of instability) + expose the consequence of that in terms of cost/benefit

Introduction should build the problem, not expose historical background. “I can’t figure out why this matters”.

Language of gap

  • (but assumes that knowledge is bounded)
  • but in an infinite model of knowledge, filling the gap effectively accomplished nothing

Language of error

Define/describe the communities who have this problem

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