How To Write Effectively
Simple strategies you can apply to your communication
I learned a lot about how to write effectively during my 5-year tenure at Amazon. Amazon has a truly unique culture of document writing and using documents to make decisions. When I first started working at Amazon, I was amazed at the level of detail, diligence, and preparedness that went into doc writing. I was even more amazed to see folks read these documents and asked such intelligent questions.
A lot has been written about Amazon’s 6-pagers and PR-FAQs. So I won’t get into that just yet. Today I will focus on simple strategies you can apply to your writing. Whether you write to introduce a new idea or inform about a recent issue; whether it is a system design document, a root cause analysis, or a simple email, these tips will enable you to write effectively and communicate clearly.
#1 Convey the intent of the document
What is the intent of your document? What are you trying to convey with your document? Are you sharing new information? Are you putting forth a proposal? Do you want to get their feedback? Are you looking for a decision? Or are you providing an update? Whatever the case, be clear to specify the purpose of the document/email.
#2 Write for your audience
Who are you writing the doc for? What do you want them to know? What’s their stake in your document? Are they the recipients of information? Or are they decision-makers? What do they know and not know? What questions will they have after they read your document? If you have multiple audiences, make sure you cater to all of them in your document or create separate versions for each one.
#3 Write clearly and concisely
At Amazon, there is a saying to “not use weasel words”. My mentor always said to me “drop the emotion from the statement, just state the facts and remove the adjectives and adverbs”. There is no need to add bulk to your documents with words like probably, possibly, maybe, that being said, etc. These words weaken the intent of your document and end up confusing the reader. So it’s best to avoid them.
#4 Use the Pyramid Principle to bring clarity to your writing
The Pyramid Principle is a methodology for structured communication. The gist of the Pyramid Principle is to –
- Start with the answer This is key. Generally, people are used to the opposite. They build context and explain the situation, then they tell you the answer to the top question. Instead, lead with the answer. Tell your reader the most important thing right away.
- Then provide 2-3 supporting arguments in favor of your answer.
- And lastly, provide 2-3 data points/details/evidence for each of your supporting arguments.
Read more about the Pyramid Principle here.
#5 Use data to back your commentary, arguments, and recommendations
When applicable, use data to make your case. Do proper due diligence to ensure the source of data is accurate. Remember to state the facts but not make any assumptions. If you use charts, graphs or diagrams, don’t forget to capture the main points in a text.
- Convey the intent of the document
- Write for your audience
- Write clearly and concisely
- Use the Pyramid Principle to bring clarity to your writing
- Use data to back your commentary, arguments, and recommendations