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Value of Writing (and Archiving)

Writing scales incredibly well. It can be read at any time by an unlimited number of people. Media theorist Neil Postman once said "The act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning ever invented because reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence, but of time as well." Inside a company there just isn't a better way to communicate than written words. That's why we are focused on ensuring we build a culture of writing. In this context, writing serves a few roles:

  • Writing to communicate. This is the point I just made.
  • Writing to converse. Thanks to new tools, writing isn't just static, it's a thing people can comment on and edit publicly.
  • Writing to think. There's a saying in law — "does it write?" — that speaks to the clarifying role writing can have in the process of thought. Forcing yourself to articulate something in writing lays bare how clearly you understand it.
  • Writing to archive. Companies are a sort of shared brain. The better that brain functions, the better the company functions. Having a shared archive of ideas, arguments, and communications and ensuring that archive is searchable (hence Notion) can help ensure that brain functions at as high a level as possible.

Everything else that exists inside this culture section is built on this foundation.

We're not alone in our fondness of writing, here's what Jeff Bezos said about writing at Amazon:

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

And here's Andy Grove from High Output Management:

So why are written reports necessary at all? They obviously can’t provide timely information. What they do is constitute an archive of data, help to validate ad hoc inputs, and catch, in safety-net fashion, anything you may have missed. But reports also have another totally different function. As they are formulated and written, the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally. Hence their value stems from the discipline and the thinking the writer is forced to impose upon himself as he identifies and deals with trouble spots in his presentation. Reports are more a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information. Writing the report is important; reading it often is not.

(If you want to read more about how writing works at Amazon and how to generally write better in a business context I highly recommend reading Writing Docs at Amazon - Noteworthy - The Journal Blog).

Last Updated: 
July 27, 2021