We all can benefit from being proficient at technical writing - no matter if we are Software Engineers, Product Managers, Engineering Managers or Designers. In the last decade of working in tech, I found one of the most remarkable shifts in how we work to be the switch to remote work. Especially after the pandemic and the hyperinflation of Video calls, our mode of work shifted a lot towards more asynchronous communication. This includes more Emails, chat messages, technical documents and project plans.
Your writing will influence how you are perceived by others and how well you can influence the organization you’re working in.
Writing levels the field
I applaud this change a lot because it allows for a very subtle power shift: Previously, most impactful decisions were made ad-hoc in in-person meetings. Within these meetings, sometimes the loudest and most aggressive people had the strongest influence. Sometimes the highest ranking people. Even more frequently, the people who were good at spontaneous persuasion had the most influence. This didn’t always lead to the best ideas being the ones considered.
With a more async culture, arguments can be prepared beforehand and researched deeper. This allows different styles of thinkers to bring their best to a decision, even if the final decision happens synchronously.
Writing brings clarity
Every time I decide to write about a topic, I notice all the gaps in my thinking. To produce anything close to a meaningful output, I need to iterate on my argument and research additional sources. Ultimately, my argument becomes stronger and more coherent after funneling it through writing.
Writing is nature’s way of letting you know
how sloppy your thinking is - Guindon 1
But it also helps the people on the receiving end of my thoughts - They, given they have the patience, can read at their own pace and re-read things that didn’t click the first time. And ultimately doesn’t matter what message has been sent, it matters what message has been received.
Have you ever had to suffer through somebody sending you voice recordings of their incoherent ramblings instead of a well-crafted email? There is a special kind of hell for these people (And I have trained all my bosses that I will delete that garbage without listening to it). But it illustrates how you can shift the burden of organizing a thought from the producer (speaker) side to the consumer (listener) side. And vice-versa. So if you want to make your thought easily digestible, write them down.
Additionally, you can supplement your writing with illustrations and pictures to make your ideas more easily digestible.
Writing reaches a wide audience
Depending on where you work, you might not have direct, infinite access to everyone working there. If you want to reach somebody to influence them, sending them a link (or publishing it at a very discoverable place) might be a lot easier. With writing, you can influence a larger amount of people over a longer amount of time, compared to synchronous 1-on-1 setups. Your writing might even be shared, and reach people you haven’t even considered. This of course means that when writing publicly to an unknown audience, you probably need to be a bit more diplomatic than in a trusted setting :-)
For some reason, writing tends to hold some authority. Maybe because nobody can see the panic in your eyes or defensive body language. Or because we’re used to taking writing things more seriously. Or because you can’t stand all the softenings you use in your spoken langue yourself, and delete them from your writing. In any way, what you have to say will sound more authoritative in Arial compared to Audio Waves.
How to get better at writing
So after selling you on writing, you’re naturally asking ‘How do I do that?‘
Unfortunately, I haven’t found any personal shortcuts to better writing yet. Doing a Master’s Degree or Ph.D. in Linguistic or similar disciplines would work the best but is probably prohibitive for time and financial reasons. So there are no shortcuts, this blog is a sad testament to that. I have talked with a few people that I admire for their writing and also didn’t have any cheat codes for me, they all got there by the same grind:
Go and start a blog (Yup, just like this one. I have started this blog partially for this reason). It’s cheap, and even if no one reads it, it is very useful training for yourself. The internet is a big place, you can set up your booth without anyone minding it.
Write technical documents about your decisions and goals. Even if your organization hasn’t habitualized it yet, it will make your voice heard, even if you’re not the chief architect.
Write careful fan-out messages in your company chat tool and via email. Prefer 1-pagers and 6-pagers over Slide Decks. Put one extra round of editing in whatever you are about to submit, even if it’s mundane.
Join a writing club or writing workshop, where you can practice with others. If there is none, maybe start one at your company.
Following people that produce good writing, and trying to find out what makes their writing good: Is it their brevity? Their humor?
Read Books: Technical books have usually been professionally edited if you stick to the main publishers like O’Reilly and Manning. Maybe avoid weird self-published fan fiction as a reference. But fiction writing can be insightful as well.
Read your own writing: Especially after a while, go back. Maybe you have come a long way and your old writing will look cringy, but I would take that as a sign of growth.
Given that English is not my first language, I rely on Grammarly a lot. With the latest uprising of AI-Based tools, I assume there is a lot more out there that can help you - Just avoid sounding like a soulless LinkedIn-business-bullsh***-machine like all these influencers and VPs out there. I would only use the tools to “polish” your edges, not substitute the whole writing itself, that defeats the point.
During my work, I had the privilege to have my writing edited by a few fantastic editors. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn too much from it - they made whatever I wrote better, but the next time around my writing was still the same. If anyone has ideas on how to benefit from that - Let me know!
‘They think written words are even more powerful,’ whispered the toad. ‘They think all writing is magic. Words worry them. See their swords? They glow blue in the presence of lawyers.‘ - Terry Pratchett
This quote has many attributions, probably because it just sounds so good. You can follow the trail here↩︎