The craft of effective writing, a summary (2023)

There is a pervasive idea about writing that has been widely taught in our education: from school essays and dissertations to doctoral theses and academic papers, we were taught to write following a specific and standardized format in hopes of convincing. and convey that we understand the subject.

In academia, and probably in any field where innovation and research takes place, writing also becomes a tool for thinking.

However, this projection of the writer's thought into the world is not effective when the reader becomes part of the image.

Disclaimer: This is a summary of the videoLEADERSHIP LAB: The art of effective writingand all credit is due to Larry McEnerney. The mistakes are mine however.

This conference is about the challenges faced by expert writers: people who write like experts on a given topic. It's not about learning a set of rules like you would use to write company memos. Even if we were consummate experts in our fields, there's nothing wrong with learning to write effectively now.

the fundamental problem

Due to our upbringing, we generally approach writing as a way of conveying our thoughts about the world. Unlike in school, where teachers are paid to look after our writing, the outside world won't care if our writing isn't valuable.they.

The common advice is that our writing be clear, organized and persuasive. Let's consider:

  • clear and useless = useless
  • organized and useless = useless
  • persuasive and useless = useless

The missing piece is that our writing must first and foremost beof value. This is the last discriminator of our writing.

However, the perception of the value of our work does not depend on us, at least not entirely; the outside world, readers, community decide whether our work is valuabletheyThey decide whether to bother reading more than the first two paragraphs.

This means that approaching writing as an exercise to please a hypothetical, standardized reader, like you would on a test or exam in school, is likely to fail. Likewise, approaching writing as demonstrating our understanding through explanation is not valuable because "nobody cares about the insides of our heads."

What matters is the effect our writing produces on the reader. Writing is not transmitting our ideas about the world; instead it's aboutchangingour readers' ideas about the world.

About the content

It seems reasonable to think that, because we consider our work asimportant, new and/or original,our colleagues will find it valuable. The importance of our work can only be seen through the community to which our work would be important. For example, we might notice a random fact about our immediate environment that no one else in the world would know:

There are 8 books on the shelf in front of me.

Robin Cussol, October 7, 2020

But is it valuable? Does this constitute knowledge? Unless we're part of the community of people who care about the number of books on people's shelves, our reaction would probably be, "Who cares?"

Communities decide whether something is valuable to them or not. Communities decide whether some data is knowledge or not.

Important.Novo.Original. What makes it valuable?

Each community has codes that indicate value. To write effectively, we must know these codes.

Larry McEnerney offers this advice: spend 15 minutes a day reading articles in our field with the intention of identifying those keywords that signal value.

As we go through this exercise, we should make a list:priceless list— of these words. Then we will use this list to transform our own writing: we read our own work, we try to find these keywords in it; if we cannot, we must spend some time entering them. Sometimes it's so simple.

By knowing our audience

Our contribution is unlikely to provide value and be persuasive without our audience's prior knowledge. It's not enough to be an expert in the field; we need to know our readers.

While this may be morally or ethically questionable, we must give readers what they want.The function of our writing is to help our readers better understand something they want to understand well.. It's about moving the discussion forward in the community.

This is not about preserving knowledge indefinitely: what is knowledge changes over time, depending on the community members who come and go and decide about it. Our writing shouldn't sit in our pile of unfinished drafts just because we fear it won't be good enough to read in 500 years. (Spoiler alert: they probably won't read it for 500 years anyway.)

Just because we write something doesn't mean the community will appreciate it. Simply sharing our thoughts and feelings won't do anything by itself if it doesn't affect our readers' thoughts.

How can we hope to persuade them without knowing what our readers believe or doubt?

On the Art of Effective Writing

All along, we've been taught to follow the martini glass model: we start in our introduction with generalizations, background, definitions, and the thesis. We then go into detail on our development and offer some further generalizations as a conclusion to our article.

We don't want to do that.

Rather, we would like to begin by stating a problem that would likely interest the reader. It could be about understanding more of a topic or solving a specific problem. The point is that the issue must be exposed through community outreach, located in its language and concerns.

It only makes sense to provide a solution once the issue has been raised. It is clear if it is a solution because the problem has been clarified.

This problem usually arises by exposing some instability that triggers cost/benefit issues for the reader: this instability can cost the reader dearly if not addressed or provide benefits if resolved.

In this sense, our introduction should build the problem and create tension in the reader. If, instead, we provide solid, structured foundations, it's hard for the reader to see why the rest matters.

Instability can be expressed through two types of language: the language of the gap, in which we strive to fill in a gap, and the language of error, in which we strive to correct existing knowledge.

The language of the gap is usually the least confrontational, but in an infinite model of knowledge it offers no intrinsic value: people won't care because we've filled a gap in their knowledge that didn't matter to them anyway.

The language of error can be more difficult to master because you don't want to alienate your readers when you claim your opinion leaders are wrong. However, it is most effective at creating instability because the stakes are much greater if readers and their thought leaders are truly wrong.

For our presentations to be complete, our target audience must be clear in expressing who is/should be concerned about the problem we have just exposed.

in a few sentences

  • The only measure of our work worth considering is whether the community it was made for finds it valuable.
  • To signal value, we must seek out and embrace the hidden rules of the community.
  • Consequently, we need to know our target readers to ensure we give them what they want.
  • To get their attention, we need to start by presenting a problem to our target readers and outlining cost/benefit considerations.

feel free to look through merough notesor take a look at the video. It's worth seeing as the speaker's delivery is formidable.

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