Pi of Life : Writer’s Block (for geeks)

This is not for writers.

Yes, they have these phases too, and times have been written about dealing with an occurrence of one. This is for the rest of us – and especially startup folks – for writing is an integral part of whatever job you do and a very important one when you’re always selling, marketing, communicating about your baby to a large and diverse, and sometimes unknown audience.

Straight from the Heart

I met someone recently who is planning growth of a very interesting product he built all by himself, and has gotten impressive traction with. There are features to build, customer support to handle, new ideas to try and marketing to be done.

So he thought he needed to hire someone to “do the writing”!!

Because hey – geeks aren’t good at writing. Heck, they don’t even like writing. So get someone who can, and leave it to them. Phew!

I patiently explained that in his case, the writing was not about the writing, but about the message it got across. And as a bootstrapper trying to expand and sell a vision and need to many many more, it was he who needed to get and stay involved in the selling.

The product’s core was something he understood. The need for it, and the benefit a user might derive from it was something he could explain not just passionately, but lucidly as well. Imagine someone with no understanding of what was going on trying to do the same. After the fifth response to a customer, or the third blog post, or even from the first social media interaction onwards, it would start to sound tired, lame and worst of all, possibly defensive.

So I asked him to do the writing himself, and hire for other, core needs the product had to be able to service more people.

Its really that simple – don’t worry about how well you write – just stick to what you’re interested in, feel strongly about or care for, and you’ll write something worth reading!

Keep it simple and precise

Great language skills and vocabulary are not always the best bedfellows of clear, effective communication. And what you’re essentially trying to do is get you point across. Of course, using correct grammar help, but that’s something easily acquired especially if you do not get too caught up in long complicated sentence constructs, over the top metaphors, and using too much of “‘insomuchas’ or ‘thus, all things considered’” – you know what I mean.

Keep the sentences simple. And stick to making one or two points at a time (preferably the whole piece, and at least per paragraph).

And do not fall into the trap of trying to justify the point you made using yet another example, or a stronger justification, or just plain repetitiveness.

Start. Then write.

The biggest challenge in being able to produce a written piece – however short or long – is the getting started.

So the trick is to start. Here’s a few “early steps” that help.

  • Create the document. Pick a draft title.
  • Put all the ideas down as bullet points as they occur to you.
  • Use the advantage that digital media provides – you can insert/cut-paste anything anytime and do not have to worry about getting it right upfront.
  • Don’t worry about writing complete sentences. Record words, ideas, phrases etc as they occur to you.
  • Save links as comments or even in the article draft as you write if you’re using references.
  • Use vernacular to start with to capture ideas or even words.
  • Pick the medium of least resistance. Some people “think better” with pen and paper. Some think aloud. Personally, I’ve gotten quick with going over to Google Docs – hitting “Create” and start typing something out!
  • Tell yourself again – the refinement can wait!

Basically – don’t get stalled for trivial reasons – you know your stuff and that needs to get reflected in the first draft really quickly.

Read it out and Edit

By the time you’re done with the above, the structure of your article, its main thrust and arguments and its highlights are already clear in your head. Now, read it out to yourself. It helps to gauge the coherence, clarity and conviction the article carries.

Look out for

  • Change of tense – this is a common mistake. “We did X” soon gives way to “After that we are trying Y”.
  • Abruptness. Does it start or end abruptly? Are there points left “dangling”? Are ideas introduced but not concluded logically?
  • Honesty : If, to you, it sounds completely like someone else is saying it, the article is likely to have little impact.

Sometimes reading it out to someone helps judge the above better than you might be able to do yourself.

Read a lot

Goes without saying – you’ll start writing better as you read more, diverse authors. Try not copying any specific person or style consciously – over time you’ll develop your own preferences and style.

Social Media

What you discuss over social media is a topic for another day (and often has more impact than how you do it) – let’s just discuss some of the generic issues with writing on these channels here.

Twitter is a challenge – the word limit (and attendant murder of grammar and spelling), usage of hashtags, the one single shot you get at expressing it – all of these make it important to form your message with some thought; I’m no expert on this but personally end up editing each at least a couple of times before hitting “Tweet”.

Facebook is easier to start with. You can write short updates, or you might just decide to do a full blog post there! Its way more explicitly interactive so you do have a shot at explaining details you choose to keep out early.

Either way, the trick is to

  • Make ONE point
  • Catch the readers’ attention immediately. Sorry make that curiosity.
  • This means the message needs to be crisp and clear upfront – few will be willing to read through a long winded sentence to try and figure out what the message is.
  • Talk with the reader, not to them. The name of the social media game is “conversations”. And its not merely about putting everything as a question.
  • Share good links. That way, you have to augment, not always write afresh 🙂

Build a channel’s attributes

This isn’t about writing a specific article or a post, but, over multliple articles and posts – it helps if the purpose and nature of each channel becomes clear in the readers’ mind.

For instance, you could use the blog for product feature and use case descriptions, technology insights and the like, the social media channels to highlight promotions, seek feedback, and engage with readers on the context in the which they use the product – including interest ideas, happenings and experiences.

This will not only help avoid confusion in the readers’ minds, but also yours as you start thinking of “what blog update should we send out this week” or “where should I share this thought”. Try and avoid overloading any channel with too much responsibility!

And, to conclude, Writing-101

The basics of any piece are important.

Is it documentation?
Is it a narrative?
Is it a fact being reported?
Is it an insight? Or an opinion?
Who’s reading it, and what are the takeways? Do they have enough context?
What are the couple of points you really want to get across?
How much time is the user likely to have to read this?
Will there be follow up questions?

To get to the next step – open your favourite editor and click on “New” right away and start – once you do the distractions will disappear and you’ll be done before you know it!

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