My colleague Karl Krayer teaches eight principles in his sessions on writing skills. One principle is this: economize words. It is a valuable principle.
I recently took some Q&A. The last question was asked by a guy in the front row. He said “What’s your take on the true value of a university education?” I shared my general opinion (summary: great socially, but not realistic enough academically) and ended with a description of a course I’d like to see taught in college. In fact, I’d like to teach it.
It would be a writing course. Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version.
I don’t care about the topic. I care about the editing. I care about the constant refinement and compression. I care about taking three pages and turning it one page. Then from one page into three paragraphs. Then from three paragraphs into one paragraph. And finally, from one paragraph into one perfectly distilled sentence.
Along the way you’d trade detail for brevity. Hopefully adding clarity at each point. This is important because I believe editing is an essential skill that is often overlooked and under appreciated. The future belongs to the best editors.
I do think this is right; good; useful.
On the other hand, the details matter too. “You’d trade detail for brevity,” said Fried. Yes, you would. So, study the writing of both Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell. I think they both have learned how to provide great detail, with few words.
So – learn what Fried suggests, then work on getting detail back in, in few words. Economize words, even in your details.
And remember this from Frank Luntz. Provide the “perfectly distilled sentence.” Then the one-page executive summary. Then, for those who want more, in a click away, provide the three pages of details:
(A Luntz Lesson) The number one priority: information. More is better than less. Details are better than generalities. Comprehensive is better than simplistic. Long term is better than immediate… Summarize the material for those who want to read less, but provide the fine print for those who want to know more.
(from What Americans REALLY WANT…REALLY: The Truth about our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears)
When That Moment Of Inspiration Arrives, Run With It – Now!
When I presented Rework for the May First Friday Book Synopsis, I described the book as a “daily devotional for business readers.” If you are not aware, there are many magazines, and books, written with daily “devotional thoughts” for believers in all faiths. They are usually written to be read one page a day, and each thought “stands alone.” This genre best describes the style of Rework – not for the content, but for the format. Each chapter is short (never over a couple of pages; many, only one page). And though there are some over-arching themes, many of the chapters are true stand-alone chapters. And each one gets you thinking…
Here’s one theme: The authors argue that work should not consume your life. Quit work at 5:00; don’t work weekends; “Forgoing sleep is a bad idea.”
But there is an exception to this “rule.” And that is when you are overtaken by some great burst of inspiration. Here’s their quote:
Ideas are immortal. Inspiration is perishable. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it now. Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator… If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work.
In this short chapter, they argue that when you fall under the spell of a moment of inspiration, do whatever it takes to turn that into action before it “perishes.” Pull an all-nighter; work through the weekend, grab it before it leaves you.
Here’s a well known historical example. Arguably the greatest piece of music ever written is Handel’s Messiah. (with apologies to the Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”). Do you know how he wrote it? In one burst of inspiration. And, in this case, it may have been truly the epitome of “inspiration.” Though accounts vary (he locked himself in his room; he wrote it in a garden), it is commonly believed that he did not deviate from his task until it was finished. He spent 24 days straight on the piece, and did not leave his work area even to eat (food was delivered to him). Legend has it that he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus, the climax of the work, on his knees, and as he finished it, he handed the music pages to his assistant and said, with tears running down his face, “I thought I saw the face of God.”
Here’s what the Rework guys say. If you have a burst of inspiration, recognize that it is “perishable.” (great word!) So, in such a moment, drop everything else, and do-it-now!
REWORK by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson of 37Signals
Maybe eventually you’ll need to go the bigger, more expensive route, but not right now.
There’s nothing wrong with being frugal.
I was on a conference call today. The person in charge of the computer screen was using Basecamp, one of the four products put out by 37Signals — the company founded by the authors of ReWork. They started small. They still have relatively few employees, and they are definitely still frugal. And yet, here is their product, changing the way people manage their information, and plan and implement projects.
You can succeed with less. Ask the 37Signals guys.
These are not from their book, but from an article in Inc.: The Way I Work: Jason Fried of 37Signals: Jason Fried hates lame meetings, tech companies that don’t generate revenue, and companies that treat their employees like children. A peek inside his typical workday.
These are great quotes, and describe a new way of thinking, a new way of structuring work, life, a company…
Creative people need unstructured time to get in the zone. You can’t do that in 20 minutes.
I have no idea how many hours my employees work — I just know they get the work done.
I spend most of my day writing. I write everything on our website. Communicating clearly is my top priority. Web writing is terrible, and corporate sites are the worst. You don’t know what they do, who they are, or what they stand for. I spend a lot of time taking a sentence and reworking it until it’s perfect. I love the editing process.
I spend another good portion of my day thinking about how to make things less complicated. In the software world, the first, second, and third versions of any product are really pretty good, because everyone can use them. Then companies start adding more and more stuff to keep their existing customers happy. But you end up dying with your customer base, because the software is too complicated for a newcomer. We keep our products simple. I’d rather have people grow out of our products, as long as more people are growing into them.
If anyone ever writes us with a complaint, our stance is it’s our fault — for not being clear enough or not making something work the way it should. I’m constantly keeping an eye on the problems that keep arising, and then we address them. But I don’t keep a list of all the complaints, because that’s too time-consuming. We also get thousands of suggestions. The default answer is always no.