The AwkEng Goes Meta - Writing About Writing

Hi all,

This post is going full meta. I'll be writing about writing, and more specifically, how I'm trying to improve my writing at work by using a new writing format. The format boils down to answering three simple questions - "What do we want?", "Why can't we get it now?", and "What should we do about it, then?".

My motivation for this is because writing at Amazon is hard and I want to be better at it. For those unfamiliar with the practice, we begin most meetings not with general discussion or a PowerPoint, but by silently reading a multi-page, prose document for 20 to 30 minutes. The writer will ask the audience for overall comments, then we'll spend the next hour going through the doc page by page, addressing specific comments and questions, called out by line number.

(Jeff Bezos famously banned PowerPoints many years ago, on the logic that you can B.S. a presentation, but not a prose memo. In general, I agree with this idea, and would add that I've met smart people who were bad writers, but I've never met a good writer who wasn't also smart.)

Anyway, I think two or three doc reviews ago, when I requested overall comments, a principle engineer said something along the lines of "I didn't even understand the first sentence." So, that was a bit of a bumpy doc review. Nevertheless, I was able to verbally explain the issue without a problem, and we were able to drive to a decision.

So ideally, I'd be able to (quickly) bang out a doc, head to a doc review, and get overall comments that start with "Nice doc" and then hash it out over the details.

The Disconnect

That doc writing at Amazon is hard shouldn't be a surprise, as Amazon is a demanding environment. The puzzle for me, is why there's such a disconnect between my work writing, my blog writing, and my ability to explain things.

People tell me they enjoy the blog, and I know I'm effective as a tutor / explainer of things, so why have I had such challenges with work writing?

The Analysis

My conclusion is that the Amazon writing style is a near perfect inversion of how I typically explain a topic, and as a result, I've lost my "voice" while writing, which has caused me to struggle.

When I explain something, or discuss something face to face with someone, I normally begin with some back and forth level setting to understand what their mental model looks like. Then I'll go through the background of my thought process, slowly build, and then deliver the punch line.

This is backwards of the typical guidance at Amazon to "lead with the lead", meaning start with your most important point and don't "bury the lead" somewhere on the third page.

(Oddly enough, I try very hard to write attention grabbing lead sentences for all my blog posts. I assume most people skim when reading email or the internet and without good copy in the first line to tell you why you should read, I know there's no getting the reader back.)

The Fix

The fix that I'm trying is to bring my conversational blog writing voice to work docs, while trying a new format that helps me explain my ideas while keeping the lead point front and center.

The format I'm now experimenting with is to "work backwards" and begin by describing the ideal end state (especially if it's a customer outcome). This usually puts the lead issue front and center and sets the stage for the rest of the doc.

The format usually goes something like this.

  1. The Ideal End State - What outcome do we want and why is it important? (Positive customer outcomes are the most important ones and make for great docs!)
  2. The Problem - Why can't we have that outcome right now?
  3. The Path Forward - What should we do about it, then?

From there, adding sections with Background, Exec Summaries, Alternatives Paths, and Additional Analysis tend to fall into place quite naturally.

And in case you haven't noticed, that's the general outline of this blog post and several other recent blog posts I've written. I feel like I'm still able to write in my voice, whether the logical arguments or quality of my writing has improved is a question I'll put to the reader.

I've certainly noticed the format has helped my work writing go faster. Even with the new format, it wasn't until recently that I noticed how much I'd really lost my "voice", though, and what an impact that was having on me. Instead of speaking/writing in a straightforward manner, like I normally would, I was trying to cram my writing into a style I thought people expected.

So my next doc might start like my blog posts, with "Hi all, this doc is about..." and see how it goes.

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