How To Use Writing To Solve Problems

I have written before that if you want to have a successful newsletter, you’d better be happy with firing off 500 mails to absolutely nobody – because in order to get there, that’s exactly where you’ll have to start.

Fortunately, things haven’t been quite that bad in my case; I’m a long way from 500 mails and have scraped together more than zero subscribers. Even so, the fact remains that I have had to do a lot of writing without many people reading it – and on the face of it that’s a pretty dismal chore.

However, much as I want this newsletter to grow, being read is not my primary goal when I write: problem-solving is.

Many of my mails are, in effect, private exercises in which I figure out something relevant to a project I’m grappling with. The fact I’m able to repurpose them for the consumption of other people is great, but even if I couldn’t it would still be worthwhile.

When you write about something in a long-form narrative style (not mere bullet points or notes), two things occur:

1 – You order, validate, and strengthen your existing thinking
2 – You generate new thinking and solutions

I’m doing it right now.  This binary breakdown I just wrote here I hadn’t really figured out until a moment ago. All I knew was that I wanted to write about writing for problem-solving and that in the process of doing so I would need to make my views on the matter clear and helpful.  As a result, out popped these two benefits, which act as their own proof; both clarification of my thinking, as well as new ideas in and of themselves.

Although I think both of these effects can occur at the same time, for the sake of simplicity let’s address them one by one.

The first – writing to order your thinking – is a technique that is used extensively in Amazon. Amazon is a brand that I haven’t written much about since there’s not much you can learn from their strategic thinking (unlimited cash to throw loads of shit at the wall and see what sticks is not easily replicable) – but from a managerial perspective, they are pretty much the best there is.

One of their core techniques is the use of written memos rather than presentations. Where other companies would typically build their meetings around PowerPoint decks, Amazon insists on the “presenter” writing their idea in narrative prose.  The first 15 minutes of the meeting then consists simply of everyone sitting and reading in silence and only then entering into the discussion when the whole thing is digested.

As Bezos himself says:

“The reason writing a 4-page memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.”

In other words, you can’t hide faulty reasoning in an essay. A bad PowerPoint is still somehow passable, but a bad piece of writing is just bad. It doesn’t stack up. It has holes. It can’t rely on the audience to fill in the blanks. Long-form writing demands completeness — and as such encourages completeness in its subject.

When I present strategies back to clients, I will confess that I generally start with a deck. It allows for a bit more showmanship, and that’s important in my game. However following acceptance of the initial draft, I then like to transfer the strategy on a couple of pages of A4, and use that as the root document going forward (for reference, briefing, sharing etc.). Through this process, I feel something is always added to the idea. It always becomes stronger, simpler, because it has nowhere to hide and so loses its fluffy edges.

Bearing this in mind, in a purely internal business context – where there’s less need for showmanship – why not jump straight to this point?  I’m confident you would see a marked improvement in quality of thought. Some might protest that they aren’t “good writers”, but we aren’t trying to get published by The New Yorker here. We are only putting across the information. And information is the precursor to action, and therefore unavoidable. Whether you write or not, you are still processing it – so why not do it well?

As for using writing to generate new thinking and solutions, this is typically a much more private exercise.

I’m not sure it would work for everyone, but I’ll tell you what works for me. When you have a problem to solve, simply take a pad of paper, and begin writing a stream of consciousness on it without stopping; a “conversation with yourself” if you like.  You’re not trying to impress anyone, you’re not going to show it to anyone, the value is simply in forcing yourself to continue getting words down on paper, and as a result, dredging up new angles and new ways of looking at the problem.

I’ve found on occasion that this exercise can achieve in 20 minutes what might otherwise be a couple of days of work.

In sum, I think we have all been taught to have a weird and distorted view of what writing is. Thanks to its educational ghettoisation into subjects like English literature, history, and philosophy, we see it as something artistic or academic. To be a “writer” is to be someone somehow detached from reality. And to “write” is to do something decadent or fancy or difficult. But writing doesn’t have to be any of those things. At its deepest level, it is the same as speech: thought made manifest. In fact, it’s deeper still; it is editable thought, which can be captured in time, and disseminated on an infinite scale.

So whether you have an audience of one million, one thousand, or zero, its utility remains much the same – clear creative thinking.  If this matters to you, then you’re crazy not to.

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