Writing as Strategy

Five lesser-known benefits of thinking out loud

You’ve probably heard the phrase “writing is thinking” before. The idea is that as you put thoughts into words, the thoughts themselves start to change, and new thoughts emerge. I’ve experienced the transformative power of putting words to paper, and it alone is a great reason to take the time to write. But there are also other, less well-publicized benefits to writing. Here are five use cases that I’ve found to be most useful and interesting.

1. Writing is managing

When I was early in my career, I’d get excited by almost any new idea that came my way. I’d read a blog post and send a message to my boss saying, “We’ve gotta do this!” Or I’d sit in on a phone call with a potential customer and feel the need to solve all of their specific problems, with little regard for the company’s overall strategy. Each time something like this happened, my boss would patiently remind me of the company’s goals and attempt to convince me that we should stick with the plan, rather than chase every shiny new object that caught my eye.

I soon realized that I was going to get excited about a lot of things, and there was no sense in trying to change this about myself. But I did have to admit that acting on that excitement by going to my boss with the idea was hurting my credibility. So I had to do something different. Writing as a form of self-management (and eventually as a form of managing others) is the best solution I’ve found so far.

When you take the time to write down your goals and the strategy for achieving them, in addition to the well-known benefit of forcing clarity, it also freezes a version of yourself in time that you can return to when you’re excited about a new idea. Instead of consulting your manager, you can consult your past self. This is often just as good. I’ve found by referring to my writing when I’m unsure what to do, I often get to the right answer quickly. It makes me a steadier and more self-sufficient worker. Even better, by staying on track, my efforts compound more over time.

2. Writing is engineering

Software is built by creating a bunch of small components—like a header, a button, a sidebar, etc.—and composing them into an overall screen. Each component is a mostly self-contained thing: it manages its own functionality internally and has limited interdependencies with the larger system. By building software this way, you can reuse components in multiple screens, so when you want to create a new screen, you have a starting point of building blocks that you’ve already created.

You can approach writing the same way, and reap the same benefits, for the same reasons.

Recently I was working with a software engineer on a test project for Lex, and I needed to send them a document with an overview of Lex and a few options for different directions we could take the project. Luckily, I already had a lot of the components of such a document pre-made, so I could copy and paste and lightly modify relevant sections from other documents I had already written. If I had to write it all from scratch each time, it would take too long, and I’d probably be tempted to keep it sparse and fill in any details on the phone or via chat.

The challenge, in both software engineering and in writing, is to find the right balance between up-front effort and just-in-time scrappiness. For some people, it’s easy to spend a whole day building beautiful scalable systems that end up never needing to scale because they’re based on a few critical false assumptions. For others, “do things that don’t scale” and “keep it simple” become terminally limiting mottos, preventing greatness rather than enabling it. Balance is the key.

3. Writing is searching

Society is like one big collective brain. Each of us is a neuron that has a set of informational inputs that we pay attention to and a psychological process for computing those inputs into outputs (actions). The actions we perform (such as publishing) ripple outwards starting at the parts of the hive brain that are paying attention to us.

Here’s the spooky part: the more writing you publish on a topic, the more the hive brain conspires to route relevant information and connections your way. By publishing your writing, you’re changing the structure of the neural network that is human civilization.

This has always been true, but it happens with astonishing efficiency now thanks to the internet. The best way to form a complete and balanced perspective on any topic is to attempt to write about it. If there are any angles that I got wrong, someone will let me know about it. Besides correcting errors, I’m astonished by the volume of useful articles, books, podcasts, and introductions that my writing has generated for me.

It’s like using Google, except instead of Google’s search algorithm running the computation, the hive brain of society is generating the search results. And the hive brain of society is many orders of magnitude smarter than Google.

The downside is that this method of search is slower and in some ways less reliable. It takes consistency over time for the hive brain to start sending valuable things your way. But it’s worth it.

4. Writing is testing

There are many ways to communicate an idea, but I don’t know of any that rival the clarity and efficiency of the written word. Writing is easily refined in a way that audio and video are not. You don’t need big budgets to get great “production values” in the same way you do with video or audio. You just need lucidity and practice.

As a result, writing is the perfect vehicle to test your hypotheses. Whether you’re theorizing about a political movement, a new tech product, or a stray thought, the easiest way to find out if it’s any good is to put it in writing and publish it.

In the best-case scenario, the world responds quickly and decisively, routing people your way who are in love with your new concept. But that usually doesn’t happen. Instead we get some positive signal mixed with ambivalence, and some clues for which direction to take your idea.

That’s why you should start a new project with a piece of writing. It will help you get some early signal and feel your way toward what works, without having to invest more than an afternoon. It’s not a substitute for all forms of building and experimentation, but it’s a useful first step in almost all cases.

5. Writing is leading

When a person reads a piece of writing, it changes the way they think. When you change the way someone thinks, you may change the way they act. Writing, therefore, is leading.

This is easy to say, hard to do. Very rarely do we read a sequence of words that truly changes us. But it does happen.

Paradoxically, the best way to lead through writing is to not directly try to do it. People can detect when someone is trying to manipulate them. But sharing personal experiences and beliefs honestly can be surprisingly persuasive.

Recently the New York Times published a story about how tech companies are asking engineers to write blog posts in the hopes of attracting new hires. I don’t think this is a new trend, but the article had a fascinating detail. These companies are finding that an engineer writing about a problem they faced and how they solved it can be more persuasive than the direct route of writing up a list of reasons engineers like working there.

Novelists and Hollywood screenwriters have long known this principle: show, don’t tell. People are moved—in the entertainment and persuasion sense of the word—by stories.

I hope you take this post as motivation to tell yours.

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