Writing is your most important instrument. Use it wrong, and you'll spend your time explaining, rather than expressing. Use it well, and you'll inspire the people around you, even from a distance.
I was emptying the attic at my parents' house and came across a shoebox of letters from my youth. You know the one—a mix of postcards, love letters, and random notes from friends passed around during high school.
It was fascinating.
Not a photo album, home movie, or psychological assessment of my teen years could've brought me closer to embodying that period of time. It was a like an x-ray into the world around me, the world inside me, and the things I thought I needed to be a better version of myself.
"Writing bridged the distance between who I was, and the person I wished to become."
Because writing, in its many forms and formats, has a way of reducing distance. And in a remote world, it's the amulet that protects distanced teams from drifting into deaf space. Writing builds trust, creates empathy between people, and is like high octane for the imagination and innovation of a team.
Here are some ways to improve your writing and bring your team closer together.
Write for yourself
"If it's interesting for you, it'll be interesting for them."
I know I'm in a writing flow when I start giggling to myself. It's not that everything I write needs to be funny, but it has to entertain and sustain me first. Because an audience can tell when you're fudging it, when something is a slog to write. There's a genuine sense of pleasure that's communicated between the lines of an honest piece of writing.
Let's consider this passage:
As a manager, your writing needs to inspire the people who work around you. Only then, can you rally your team around the ideas that will matter to the growth of your company.
To the untrained eye, there's nothing wrong with this passage. It communicates a message and says something that the reader can take away and use. But is it memorable? Does it say something about the writer? Not quite sure.
Here's a second take, writing for "yourself" first:
The things you write are competing with Reddit, family photos on a phone, and the smell of coffee brewing in the background. Unless you sound like an actual human to your team, your writing will be relegated to the pile of corporate-ese where people keep their taxes and insurance docs.
What's the major difference between these two passages?
The second one gives a sense that this is probably the way I'd say things in real life. There's a person behind that text—it has life to it. So write the way you speak, and speak your own way. Which brings me to my next point.
Don't use idioms
"You'll never put forth an interesting idea if you borrow a phrase that's already been used a thousand times, to explain a thousand different things."
As a university student I lived in the international dormitory. I had privy to fresh gnocchi, a makeshift Oktoberfest, and the interesting ways that people learn the English language. One thing language students tend to gravitate towards is idioms—you know, the things we say that mean something else.
One particular German student had recently learned the phrase "That's the way the cookie crumbles" which essentially means, "That's life, deal with it."
All of a sudden, everything played a part in how the speculative cookie broke apart. Leaky faucet? That's the way the cookie crumbles. Date didn't show up? That's the way the cookie crumbles. Oreo breaks up in your hand before you dip it into your glass of milk? That's the way the...
Marcel Proust, the French writer and poster child for making phrases so long you'd often need a defribilator to make it through a paragraph—hated idioms. He called them lazy, unnecessary, and unimaginative. And maybe there's some truth to that. You'll never put forth an interesting idea if you borrow a phrase that's already been used a thousand times to explain a thousand different things.
Your idea = your own way to express it.
Plus, we're all remote now, we're located around the world. Not everyone commands the English language like native speakers do. Throwing idioms out from your toolbox will make you more relatable and easier to understand to everyone. Which is kind of the point of writing to your team, isn't it?
It's you, not me
“A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” —Dale Carnegie
Great Dale, but I don't always know the first name of every person in the group I'm writing to. So what can we do with that advice? Easy, use "you."
Whenever you're about to send a message, scan it for the use of "I." Then, if possible, rewrite the passages to revolve around "you".
As of today, I'd like for us to starting using forks and knives when eating instead of our hands in order to avoid damaging IT equipment.
Now for an example using "you":
Are your hands sticking to your keyboard after lunch? Today's your lucky day: forks and knives now available for you in the lunchroom.
Okay, I used a "your" here and there but you get the point. A good "you" will send a little alert in the reader's mind that they need to pay attention. And in writing, your one and only job is to move those eyes to the next line, one micro-moment at a time.
Delete every word that ends with "ly"
Do you know what's worse than a nightmare where strangers are throwing razor-sharp pickles at you? An adverb.
They act like MSG filler when you phrase lacks a certain flavor. And an adverb consumed too often will leave the reader bloated and bland in the head. Because adverbs are empty. Instead, use a more in-depth description of what you're trying to say.
Here is an example:
I went outside for a walk and it all went beautifully.
Here's what happens when we sub out the adverb for real-life descriptions.
I went outside and the birds were singing, the sun was shining, and I ended up figuring out the meaning of my life.
💡 Pro tip: When you're done writing your doc, do a Ctrl + F and search for "ly." That'll catch most of your adverbs so you can delete them.
Stories, not storytelling
I'm going to be really honest here. Every time I hear the term "storytelling" in the context of startups, I want to 🤮 hard noodles. It's all great that brands are trying to create arching narratives to help their customers feel attached, but in its absolute, a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's it. That's the hero's journey distilled into something practical.
There are only 3 things you need to remember when creating a story to support your writing:
1. Set the status quo
I was walking through the rain as I've done for the past 35 years.
2. Add an exceptional event
I slipped and fell into a puddle and got my favorite Batman socks wet. This made me feel sad and alone.
3. Create a satisfying ending
And it was there, sitting in that muddy puddle, that I had the idea for Shellactos, the world's first stylish & waterproof socks.
Wait a hard-boiled second, why should we even bother with stories in the first place? Good question.
The short version is that stories are wired into our brains—because they protect us. Back when we were bearded wholly mammoth hunters sitting around a cave fire, information passed on from other bipeds would be our only source of "news." They contained information that could save our life.
To get technical about it, stories are saved in pareidolia part of our brain—the same place where we store all the faces we see, and why we tend to see human-like faces in clouds, tree foliage, and peeling paint. Faces protect us too, they were (and still are) the difference between a young baby trusting their mother instead of the visage of a tiger.
"People tend to write too much and add too much context hoping it helps comprehension, but it does the opposite."
—Laure, product marketing @ Slite
When you're using a slick-looking remote communication tool, there can be the temptation to overwrite. Instead, we should aim for the happy place which mixes clarity of opinion, personality, and the winner of the day—brevity.
It's a balancing act but it can be done. Here's a process that can work.
Get it on the page, don't get it right
First, empty your mind about the topic you'd like to write about. Don't pay attention to form, syntax, or audience. Just get it out, no need to worry about getting it right.
Edit with a sword
Authors like David Sedaris and Raymond Carver would rewrite a story about 20 to 30 times. Total overkill for remote communication but you get the point. The real process of writing is in the editing. And when in doubt over a certain word or passage, chop it from the text.
Read it out loud
This is the magic sauce to good writing. Because your ear will pick up things that your eyes cannot. Rhythm, repetitive words, transitions—all in the ear's realm of responsibility. If it sounds good, it'll read well. And if it's too long, you'll notice right away because you'll bore yourself when hearing it.
To sum up:
Be your own audience
Write for yourself by writing the way you speak.
Don't use idioms
Make your writing more relatable by using statements that everyone can understand.
Kill your adverbs
Bring clarity to your text by deleting superfluous words.
Tell a story
Stories are wired into our brains. They make us listen up.
Brevity wins the day
When in doubt, cut it out.
Read Lead by Writing.
A guide to help you grow your remote team.