Don’t write like a CEO, write like Hemingway

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.</p>

― Ernest Hemingway

One of my primary responsibilities in my job as an IT strategist is documenting how our team sees the technology landscape, and how our organization should respond. By its very nature this task requires taking complicated subjects and making them understandable. Even further, our papers serve as advice and guidance to decision makers who do not necessarily understand the technical nuances of every topic, yet they must be equipped to make the right decisions. As you can imagine, this can be a tricky feat to pull off.

I act as an editor for much of the work our team produces, and I read broadly in the subjects we cover. As a result I have learned a lot about writing in the corporate/technical environment. And, the fact is, most of the writing in my industry is not very good.

It's not that the ideas aren't good, or that the authors are not smart people. That's almost never the case. These are smart people who are not trained in writing effectively and clearly for their context and goals. And it's not about being a "technical" writer, either. I reject the idea that technical writing is a wholly separate discipline.[ref]A good writer can write about technology, they just have to understand it well first. That's usually the problem.[/ref] And, it's not just in the technical fields, corporate writing on the whole is pretty terrible stuff.

Why is it so bad? Because it is too complicated.

In all writing, simplicity is a virtue. I love the work of Ernest Hemingway for this very reason, his work is steeped in simplicity. He is straight forward and honest in a way that was revolutionary for his time. In a world dominated by words spread at the speed of light, we need to rediscover that way of writing.

In that spirit, I offer three suggestions to improve your writing on the job:

Don't write in 'corporate-speak', write honestly

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
― Ernest Hemingway

We've all read enough corporate-speak to know it when we see it. We tend to dismiss it as harmless. In its most innocent incarnation we hear it and use it as shorthand, a simple way to convey complex ideas. Of course it gets ridiculously out of hand easily: "The organization should leverage its synergies to facilitate bleeding edge advances in solutions that align with our corporate values." Ugh, gross.

On the more nefarious end of the spectrum, we can also recognize it as a politically correct nod to the difficulties of being honest with large groups of people. In fact, corporate-speak today aligns more with George Orwell's observation about political speech: "Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Instead, write with honesty. Illustrate a simple point with simple words. As Hemingway would advise, fire up your shit detector.

Don't be passive, write in an active voice

This is the number one issue I find, and in my opinion it's also the worst thing an author can do to a reader. Think about the typical corporate-speak that is applied to problems. How often do we read something like, "We experienced issues on the website due to unplanned maintenance." I'm sorry, what? 'We experienced issues', is so distant sounding, which is of course the point. We didn't break the site, the site 'experienced issues'. It's usually just a not-too-subtle way of saying, "don't blame me, man!"

Instead, even when talking about things such as server issues, use an active voice. It's more interesting, and it is usually far more honest. Simply put, active voice is when your subject performs the verb: 'The boy hit the ball.' Passive voice is when the subject receives the action of the verb: 'The ball was hit by the boy.' So why don't we write in active voice? Why don't we write, "The website is unavailable," instead of "we experienced issues on the website"? In my experience, it's usually for two reasons. First, passive voice distances the subject from the verb, which often shifts accountability. Second, many people think passive voice sound more high-minded (on that, see the next point).

While Hemingway never wrote about server issues, but he did have a knack for connecting to the reader with active, direct language. He was able to convey full experience in just a few lines. While few can live up to his accomplishments, we should think of the clarity and directness of his language when writing, even at work:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Don't try to sound fancy, write with clarity and simplicity

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
― Ernest Hemingway

Using big words when simpler words will do does not make you look smart. Sorry, it's just true. No reads the word 'use' and thinks, "Wow, what a dummy. He didn't write 'utilize'." The extent of a writers vocabulary is not related the quality of his work, nor to the value of his work to the reader.

This is not to say that unusual words are out of bounds, I love strange and unusual words. When used well and sparingly, interesting words can grab the attention of the reader and spark interest. There is no denying the power of just the right word, in just the right place. But in corporate writing the use of complicated words instead of simpler, better, and more understandable words is far, far too common. I think these selected examples show the value in simplicity:

  • Advantageous — helpful
  • Consolidate — combine
  • Endeavor — try
  • Facilitate — ease, help
  • Leverage — use
  • Optimize — perfect
  • Competencies — skills
  • Regarding — about
  • Subsequently — after or later

Even if writing is not the majority of your work, if you use a computer for any significant part of your day, then you really are a writer. These rules apply across the board. From emails, to business plans, from whitepapers to project specs, the written word is foundation of business in the modern age. And the better writer you are, the better you will be at your job.

A beautiful reflection

We stood on the banks of the Rio Grande, just yards away from the threshold of the Santa Elena Canyon, with tears in our eyes. Without taking her eyes off the sunset in the canyon, my wife said to me, "I've never seen anything more beautiful." I agreed with her. And my heart leapt with praise for our God.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4

We spent one day of our anniversary trip hiking and exploring Big Bend National Park, and this was our last thing before leaving. We pulled up to the canyon just as the sun set within its walls. The view was unlike any I have ever seen. The picture above simply cannot capture the beauty of the moment. It moved us both profoundly. It was easy to feel the charge in the air between us. The beauty in God's creation was undeniable, and it was emotional.

Theologically, God's glory is the beautiful, created radiance and light surrounding his revelation of himself. God's glory comes from God himself, it does not belong to anyone else, and no one else can possess it or produce it. For this reason we talk of reflecting God's glory. As created beings, we can only reflect his glory, we cannot produce it. When we do good works, love others, or obey God's word, we do not display his glory, we only reflect it.

The rest of God's creation is the same way. The sun setting in Santa Elena Canyon was not God's glory, but merely a reflection of it. The light of the sun on those walls let us see a glimpse, though as if through a dim mirror, the glory of my God. It made me anticipate the day I experience his glory myself all the more.

I pray my life reflects God's glory in the same way, though those moments are more fleeting than the sunset that evening.

Better tools won’t make you a better writer

The newest and fanciest writing tools will not help you to become a more effective, efficient and creative writer. A new piece of software or new notebook alone can't make your writing better.

Let's be honest, good tools are great. Tools help writers out. They can help us out a lot, in fact. But good tools won't make you a good writer. They can make you more efficient or faster, and they may even make your words look better on the screen or page. But they won't make the work better. Only two things will do that: work and time. Together.

There are well-meaning and smarter writers than me who advise other writers not to worry about their tools and simply write. They are correct. Of all the opinions and advice I will offer on this site, my echo on this point is the most important: sit down and write.

I am susceptible to the lie that tools will help my writing. A simple list of past purchases will show how effective the software sirens are at luring me off course. Or the sirens of fancy pens. Or those who peddle fancy notebooks. And on, and on, and on...

What I have learned in my various excursions into the writers' marketplace? Every software or supplies purchase I've made, and will make, is based on one of two impulses: a physical requirement to complete a project, or a hope that it would make the project better. Sadly, there have been far more of the latter.

In the era of web magazines, social media and self-publishing, I believe every writer can benefit from using the right toolset for the job. In fact, this is not even linked to our era. We can certainly see how the switch to papyrus from stone as a medium made life much easier for the scribes of the day. But then, as now, not one scribe's work became better due to an obsession over the details of fine papyrus and the search for the perfect reed pen.

Don't ignore your tools, they are important. Go ahead and try new things out. Sharpen the tools you already have.

But then, sit down and write. Do the work, it's the only way to get better.

Find your creative lineage

"Write what you know" is common advice to writers, and it's advice I used to give until a great little book pointed out something important.

That's where terrible stories come from.

In his book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon makes a valuable point that any creative person would do well to abide by, we should not write what we know, instead we should write what we like. This is natural, and often we do it without thinking about it. Artists create because we loves art, we create because we love what's created. As Kleon puts it, "All fiction is fan fiction."

He's right of course. My desire to write comes from the love of reading I've had for as long as I can remember. When I talk to my filmmaker friend Jeremy about art, he constantly refers to the films of those he admires, not his own. If you spend a few minutes thinking about it, I bet you too can trace your desire to create to another creator.

I think Christian artists know something else about this as well. If we are inspired to create by others' creations, how deep does that cycle go? It goes back to our Creator. After all, we are sub-creators, creating in imitation of the one who created us. In every medium, we work with the raw materials he provides. The ideas, words, images, colors, sounds, questions and every other input to our work were all created by God. The amazing new things humanity makes do not catch God by surprise. In his infinite, eternal knowledge and creative power he conceived them all first.

Culture is a gift from God. Art is an expression of the common grace God has shown on this world. As artists, we look to culture for the raw materials of our work, whether consciously or not. Because this is such a powerful factor in our work, we should examine our influences intentionally. We should try to consciously learn from them.

In his book, Kleon offers up the helpful idea of documenting your creative lineage, or as he puts it, your family tree. He urges us think about who influenced us, and then who influenced them? And then, who influenced them? When you spend some time on this question, I bet you will find some interesting insights. For example, if you look at my creative family tree, you might observe that C.S. Lewis is, in some sense, in the center. That surprised me at first, but then as I considered it, it made perfect sense. That encouraged me to dig into his work even more.

Spend some time thinking about the artists who influenced you. Consider their impact on your work, and where their point-of-views came from, and then dig into that second layer. I hope you'll find something surprising and delightful.

Seek out criticism

Feedback on your work is important, you already know this. But, it is too easy to dismiss exactly how much this matters for a writer. Honest feedback is the key ingredient to improving in anything you do, but especially in your writing.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien knew the value of honest criticism, and sought it out. Once a week, and sometimes more, Lewis and Tolkien met with their friends and colleagues to read their work, hear others read theirs, and share criticism. This informal literary society was known as 'The Inklings,' and met like this for over fifteen years.

It was this group that first heard parts of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. C.S. Lewis also read his Narnia stories for the first time to this group of friends. It was not always easy for them. In fact, when Lewis first shared The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Tolkien, he did not get a positive reception. Tolkien thought the work was full of obvious allegories, and he did not like Lewis's mixing of characters and fantastic creatures from so many legends and myths. Lewis was disheartened by this, but he continued to work on it, and share it with his colleagues. In the end, the series became one of the best known, and most-loved, fantasy works of all time.

As a writer, I sympathize with Lewis in the moment he first shared the world of Narnia with the other Inklings. I can imagine how discouraging it must have felt to have such a good friend, who shares your taste, dislike your work. We can sympathize because, and let's be honest here, it's scary to take something that you worked hard on, something you are emotionally attached to, and give it to someone else. Especially when accompanied with the question, "Well, what do you think?" It is a vulnerable place, for an artist it might be the most vulnerable place.

It gets worse. Honest, well-motivated and well-informed criticism of your work is hard to come by. Finding the right person to trust with your unfinished work is daunting. How do you know who to trust? Are they well-read enough to appreciate the difference between good and bad writing? Do they respect the genre you're working in? Can they articulate how something can be improved in a way that you can use?

Yet, there is no other way forward. Your work will not improve in a vacuum, and it certainly will not move anyone if it never sees the light of day. As writers, we must find people we trust to help us grow.

In the last few weeks I sat down separately with two writer friends to hear their thoughts on a short story that I've struggled with for over a year. They both gave me excellent notes and thoughts. Some of them were not positive, some were. Some of them I didn't agree with. But most of them I did, overwhelmingly so. I now have a long list of things to think about, and a few things that I know I must change.

It was not easy to open up this piece of work to these guys, especially because I am not happy with the state it is in. But that is exactly why I did. They saw things I did not see, because I have been looking at it up close for so long. Their thoughts were valuable and helped me considerably, and the story will be better as a result.

Fellow writers, if you do not have someone who you share your work with consistently, I urge you to change that. We cannot create our best work alone. We need other people around us who support us and want us to succeed. We need a community of artists and people who love art supporting us in order to produce good work. It will be scary to seek this out and find it, but I promise, when you do find it, it will be worth it.