How to Use Writing to Improve Your Thinking
Writing is like taking the stairs
The other day I read an HBR article about a company executive who discovers that employees are using the office copier for personal reasons. He creates a memo to address it. And he goes through three levels of revisions:
- First, eliminate wordiness
- Then, get the tone right
- Finally, make the intent clear
This revision process is something we can apply to our thinking as well as our writing. Let’s look at the steps that the executive took to make his writing sharper.
The first draft of the memo concluded: “Such practice [using the office copier for personal reasons] is contrary to company policy and must cease and desist immediately… Accordingly, anyone in the future who is unable to control himself will have his employment terminated.”
Sounds like a robot wrote that. So he shortened it to: “Such practice is contrary to company policy and will result in dismissal.”
The tone sounds a bit scary, right? The executive realized that it sounded like a false threat. And he knew he wouldn’t really fire employees for using the copier. So he edited: “Copiers are not to be used for personal matters.”
The memo was now clear and free of unnecessary words. But it felt like an overly simple statement of policy. The executive reflected. Did he really want to enforce the policy? What would he do if people kept using the copier for themselves anyway? Would he assign someone to police the equipment?
So he thought: What is the real intention behind the memo? And how can that intention be communicated clearly?
The executive realized he didn’t want employees using the copier for personal reasons because this costs the company money. So the final memo goes:
“We are revamping our policy on the use of copiers for personal matters. In the past, we have not encouraged personnel to use them for such purposes because of the costs involved… We are therefore putting these copiers…