Why You Should Probably Be Putting More Things In Writing

For some people, talking things out is how they clear the fog. They "think out loud". You may be within earshot, but your perspective isn't all that necessary. You're just a willing participant to facilitate someone's quest for clarity.

Not me. I'm too afraid of looking stupid or misstating something, and I'm not usually ready to "think out loud" until I've spent a lot of time by myself with pen and paper...or fingers and a keyboard, as the case might be. (By the way, I'm loving my reMarkable 2 tablet, which seems to combine the old and the new.)

This love of the written text has always drawn me, like a moth to a flame. In many years of grad school, my dream trips were to the University of Michigan or Duke University to spend hours with their manuscript libraries, or studying photos of papyri from afar (I was never able to touch any actual ones).

There's just something about how writing something down memorializes it. It signifies that:

  • You've put some thought into something.
  • What you are going to the trouble of writing down is important in some way.
  • You're willing to take a stand that cuts through time without any chance of memory loss.
  • You and your team have made a decision and it's going to impact what you do.

Think of the role of the printing press in spreading knowledge. Or that fact that Martin Luther nailed an actual thing to a door. Or many centuries before, the Code of Hammurabi captured this:

  • # 48. If anyone owe a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not grow for lack of water; in that year he need not give his creditor any grain, he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.

Hammurabi was a Mesopotamian ruler that—largely because he put things in writing—built a far-flung society four thousand years ago. The Code consisted of 282 laws, and it's the first widespread example of written texts (often on stone) that established codes of behavior. That could have been accomplished via oral tradition, as it was done before he arrived, but this was more efficient, spread more quickly, and avoided much of the confusion that would otherwise have accompanied new policies.

Sadly, he was also a control freak, and so when his age caught up with him, and he no longer was as involved personally, his kingdom fell apart and there was no trace of it within 150 years, even though his son took over the reins.

Your work for clients has a lot of this in it, too:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

That's from George Saunders, in a column in The Guardian. He writes a lot about writing, and here's something else I love (from the Braindead Megaphone):

“In a culture that is becoming ever more story-stupid, in which a representative of the Coca-Cola company can, with a straight face, pronounce, as he donates a collection of archival Coca-Cola commercials to the Library of Congress, that 'Coca-Cola has become an integral part of people's lives by helping to tell these stories,' it is perhaps not surprising that people have trouble teaching and receiving a novel as complex and flawed as Huck Finn, but it is even more urgent that we learn to look passionately and technically at stories, if only to protect ourselves from the false and manipulative ones being circulated among us.”

Let's just be honest and admit that the stories you tell for your clients are really meant to wrap a beautiful bow around something, at its core, that you want another human to do, sometimes for their sake, but usually for yours. But the stories you tell about your policies and what you believe—those have a rawness to them that draws me and makes me want to know more about what's behind what you've put in writing. And how long it took to arrive at that. And how many people you had to wrangle to agree to a certain stringing of the words together.

Here's another George Saunders quote from the same piece:

“The generalizing writer is like the passionate drunk, stumbling into your house mumbling: I know I'm not being clear, exactly, but don't you kind of feel what I'm feeling?”

Do you see how you might want to be clearer? And how putting some of those things in writing could force you to wrestle with those concepts? Even if hardly anyone ever reads them?

If we roll forward to the present, this is why your client criteria, your mission / vision / values, and your employee handbook are so important. Each of these puts a stake in the ground. Or more appropriately, builds a lighthouse on a hill.

Be clearer in your work. Think about the relative value of having a POV, and then put it out there and see if your worst fears come true...or the greater articulation keeps leading to bigger and better things.

You're in the business of writing (i.e., articulating) for clients, and I think you should do more of it for yourself and your firm.

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