I was writing a job description last week, but got stuck for a while. It was for a really interesting role, a bit different to roles that my colleagues and I have hired for before. I didn’t want to repurpose an existing description, so was writing it from scratch. But I got stuck looking at a blank page, thinking of the document it needed to be.
What unstuck me and got me writing again was remembering something that I've known for ages: writing must “do” something and not simply “be” a document. This piece needed to get across:
- Why the job and our team was interesting and attractive.
- What the person in this role would be doing, and why. (All job descriptions list what the main duties and responsibilities are, but not all say how exactly those things will help the team and the organization.)
Once I remembered that the job description should convey this message, I started drafting it by imagining that I was talking through the points to an interested candidate. Then it flowed. After some edits, it not only was a job description; it was doing what it needed to do.
Being v.s. doing: this contrast is something I’ve borrowed from US Air Force military strategist John Boyd, who asked his new team members whether they wanted:
To be somebody, or to do something… which way will you go?
– quoted in "Boyd", by Robert Coram
In the USAF in the 1970s, it was easier to be promoted by looking like leadership material and making the right people happy than by achieving something of worth. To achieve something significant, you would have to overcome entrenched interests and annoy some of the people who would otherwise have helped your career. Hence the choice Boyd posed – you could be somebody or do something, but probably not both. And of course he preferred people to do something – it was the choice he had made for himself, achieving much in his work. His promotion path did suffer as a result (and unfortunately he worked so much that his family life also suffered).
The connection I make with writing is this: Writing that lacks substance but looks plausible might fill a gap on a page; might even impress those around us who care for appearances; but it’s unlikely to have much of a lasting effect on readers. It won’t do much. Perhaps you've experienced this, for example when being impressed by a conference talk but realizing later that none of the points stuck with you. Or when reading machine-generated content that looks the part but turns out to be completely bland and unoriginal. Or when reading human-generated content that reads as if it's from a machine – there is a lot of it around.
I first thought about the difference between writing to do vs to be in Taiwan, when coaching some local managers in multinational companies. They’d been asked to do something like “write the quarterly results slides”, or “create a white paper”. And they’d struggle (at least the people I was coaching did – that’s why I was coaching them!) They’d done plenty of English writing but at college, for marks. They didn’t have much experience with real business writing, and it was my job to help.
You might think I’d give them standard templates, or teach some key phrases. But they'd learned some of those already and it didn’t seem to help with the main problem. Actually, perhaps it was getting in the way. They would write something that sounded kind of corporate but lacked a message. They’d do that for a few lines and then get stuck. Or worse, they’d keep on writing variations of the same thing.
As I got to know these writers, I realized that they actually had a lot to say. For example, a lead hardware engineer was doing something quite new for the security camera market, with fast processing of video signals to pick out details such as what was going on in the shadows of a car park. This was an interesting story, but somehow the demand to “do a white paper” was blocking that out, freezing his ability to communicate. I persuaded him that the story was the important thing, and the formal characteristics of the white paper could come later. And we moved toward a nice piece that not only “was a white paper” but showed readers in an engaging, believable way the new good thing that his company was making.
Another example: a Big Tech manager was tasked with making a quarterly results slide. In the results, some data covered an area she’d been worrying about. With a past employer, she’d been used to leaving such information buried in the data, not highlighting it. She was used to slides that were a kind of summary, but carefully avoided doing too much to the audience. Now in her new job, she started to see that she not only could highlight the data to surface her concern, she should do so, and would be appreciated for doing so. Something that merely was a slide would not help her team, or ultimately her career. This realized, she was able to make her presentations count, and she moved closer to a promotion.
Since then, as a tech team lead, a consultant, and later a product leader, I’ve had to produce a lot more writing that does. Writing that doesn't just look the part, but does something to communicate ideas and drive action*.
From time to time, like most of us, I’ve become distracted and temporarily blocked by the idea of writing that just is, as happened with the job description that temporarily froze me. But these temporary blocks are good in a way, since they're a chance to remember that writing is for doing.
Sometimes it takes others to point out that our writing is not quite hitting the mark. Patient colleagues and some great editors too have helped me with this. (My first year as a professional writer taught me that memorizing style guides was not the culmination of tech writing but just the superficial start – the real job was taking the reader where they needed to go.)
Some incurious writers do seem to have committed themselves to be, not do. Asking them to clarify meaning will produce a blank face or an evasion, “it’s just to sound good”, or “it's only for social media”. As they acquire the habit of derivative, superficial writing, they can no longer produce work that does something to its audience and in the process challenges their own thinking.
Let's aim for language that does more than fill a page†. We often see the task of writing as to “do the words”, hence the ironic title of this blog and newsletter. How about turning it around and writing “words that do”?
*Even my tips on specific language features are to help your messages have an effect, not just to simulate communication. The next tip will be about a language feature that almost forces you to think things through and communicate better. Sign up to get it straight to your inbox, a few days before I get round to sharing it on social media.
†“Filling a page” sounds like what “content” does. As in “Contents of this box may settle.” Does that mean that we should stop talking about “content” if we’re referring to writing that has a real effect in the world? In the words of Francis Urquhart: