Writing guide for Product Managers, Part 1
Universal principles to help you become a better writer, empower your team with knowledge, and help them make sense of any mess
Hello there! Welcome to my eclectic newsletter. My name is Ev, and every week or so I publish a blog about product, technology, career, or life in general. But usually it’s the first three. 😉
🎤 If you have a question, you can ask me in comments or in a form here. I will answer it in one of the future posts.
Good writers get ahead
“Hire good writers” is a rule that Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson live by. Founders of 37Signals, the company that gave the world Ruby on Rails, Fried and Hansson have built a distributed team whose success hinges on an ability to communicate asynchronously across time zones and cultures.
Fried and Hansson are not alone in their belief that writing skills matter. Founders of GitLab, Stripe, and Amazon have all nurtured cultures of strong written communication.
Clear writing helps your colleagues to answer questions in a timely manner, it helps them learn, and to make better decisions. In a world that’s becoming increasingly distributed and asynchronous, writing is regaining its importance as the most important way of communication.
About this guide
I will publish this guide as a series in three parts: Principles, Techniques, and Resources — all covering different aspects of the craft of writing. Today, we will start with principles.
Subscribe to get access to the Parts 2 & 3 in which we’ll talk about techniques and resources to level up your writing
#1 Write for yourself
You will hear this often: “know your audience”. While this advice works well for public speaking, it may lead you to a writing disaster. William Zinsser suggests a better, contrarian approach: you should always write for yourself.
Of course, that doesn’t mean completely ignoring the needs of your audience. Instead, that means allowing yourself to rely on your innate feel for language and understanding of context of whatever it is you’re trying to explain. This helps you craft a message that not only conveys information in with clarity, but does so without sacrificing your unique voice.
Few things are as boring as jargon-laden business documents devoid of style and life. While
often sometimes efficient, business writing, and especially product management writing, is rarely memorable.
Your job as a product manager, however, is not only to provide information, but make it memorable and easy to recall, so that your colleagues could apply the new knowledge in their work. If after reading the draft you get bored to bits, you know what to do: rewrite.
Every single accomplished writer admits that the most powerful tool in writer’s toolbox is rewriting. Your first draft, be it the first draft of an email or the first draft of a product strategy, is never good enough. Rewriting is the single most important thing you could do to bring clarity and narrative cohesion to an otherwise nebulous mess.
The challenge, however, is to know how to rewrite. All of us have unique writing struggles that we must overcome. Some abuse passive voice, while others use too many weasel words, thus not being specific. Once I started fostering good writing habits and learning more from professional writers, I began paying close attention to my own writing mistakes—and the mistakes of others. As I did that, I realized how tools that do miracles for me can’t help my peers. Everyone needs to figure out their own approach.
Part 2 of this series of articles will give an overview of techniques that you can use to come up with your unique way of rewriting. I hope that it saves you time, and you can become a better writer in mere weeks, instead of months or years.
#3 Cut 50%
Once you finish writing, cut the draft by half. It’s a difficult goal to reach, and you won’t be able to do that every time, especially as you get more skilled as a writer. But even good writers can expect to cut the amount of words they used in the first draft by a third.
One of my former colleagues communicated with a sniper-like precision, and one of the reasons for that was his habit of cutting. He forced himself to cut: every paragraph he wrote, he challenged himself to convey the same message in just one sentence. Obviously, he didn’t just cut, but also used paraphrasing a lot.
Let’s take a look an example from a popular business strategy blog Stratechery.
Before [79 words]:
Bitcoin’s value is rooted not in the Bitcoin blockchain, but rather in the collective belief of millions that it is in fact valuable; NFTs, to the extent they capture and retain value, will require the same sort of collective belief (this is why I find NBA Top Shot particularly interesting: it is rooted in real world copyright). That means the real power is not the record of belief, but rather the ability to inspire belief in the first place.
After [45 words]:
Bitcoin’s value is not in its blockchain, but in the belief of millions that it is valuable. NFTs will require the same collective belief. That means the real power is not the record of belief, but the ability to inspire belief in the first place.
#3 The inverted pyramid principle
Inverted Pyramid principle is an approach that journalists practice daily. Journalists start most of their stories with a sentence which summarizes the most important facts. That sentence is called a “lede”. All following sentences support the lede with more information, and readers who are short on time only need to skim the main and paragraph ledes to learn everything they need.
Inverted Pyramid is a great way to help people who skim — and most of your readers probably do. In military communication this approach is called “bottom line up front”.
You can apply the Inverted Pyramid on the document, section, or paragraph level. You can even use it to structure your slides.
#5 Read your draft out loud
Reading out loud is the best way to see if your sentence flows. It helps you to taste the sounds on the tip of your tongue: if two words are hard to pronounce in sequence, you need to change them. Some words look fine on paper but have an extra syllable that makes them stick out in a sentence. That also breaks the flow.
Compare with the first version of that paragraph:
Reading out loud is the best way to see whether your sentence flows, for two reasons. First, it allows you to feel the words on the tip of your tongue: if two neighbouring words are difficult to pronounce, you need to change them. Second, while some words look fine on paper they may be a syllable too long, and that makes the sentence less readable.
#6 Craft the narrative
All previous principles focused on writing with better style. And while style is important, narrative flow of the whole document bears as much weight as clearly written sentences and paragraphs. You may not think about the narrative when crafting a short email, but writing a longer document makes it treacherously easy to veer off track and engage in a self-indulgent exploration of business vernacular without actually saying anything of substance and value. We look down on verbal rambling, but we seem to tolerate it in our writing.
A way out of this is to answer the question: how does the key message of the current section of my document support the key message in the previous section? Another good way to structure your thought is to make each section of the document self-contained.
Self-contained sections that build on each other and use the Inverted Pyramid principle help readers who skim grasp enough context about what’s going even if they choose to read less than half of the document.
#7 Think in 2 .. 4 sentence paragraphs
Thinking in paragraphs instead of sentences helps you find a way to convey a whole concept. You can start with a key message in the lede, expand on it in the next sentence or two, and wrap up with the last sentence to set the stage for the next paragraph. That helps you to make each paragraph logically complete and connected with the rest of the text.
#8 Don’t over explain
There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a lengthy and complex explanation of something simple.
It goes like this: “In our research, we found strong evidence that X% of users who saw suggested products in their cart checkout flow had Y% increase in order value. Normalized for the entire user base, the results in $Z USD increase in average order value.”
While those sentences are entirely made up, their level of monstrosity is representative of what’s wrong with much of product writing. While those two sentences aren’t specific enough, that’s not the biggest problem. The main issue here is that the text gives an unnecessary level of detail and over-explains the experiment, and that makes it hard to pay attention to the key message: the uplift in average order value.
Here’s a better version: “Users who saw suggested products in the checkout flow submitted bigger orders, with an average increase of $Z USD.”
Precise language cuts to the chase. How many times have you seen someone write “utilize” when a good old “use” would do? In our attempts to sound smart, we abuse the language and over-engineer sentences. We “initiate” instead of “starting”, “communicate” instead of “talking”, and “collaborate” instead of “working together”.
If you’re struggling to simplify, it’s always a good idea to check thesaurus to find shorter words.
💡 Tip: You will also notice that the overly complex words in our corporate lingo have Latin roots. Swapping them out could clean up your writing in a flash.
#10 Make your last sentence pop
Opening sentences get all the spotlight, but it is the closing words that tie it all together and deliver and emotional or intellectual punchline. There’s not much I can say about how to pick your last sentence, except to say that you should think about it just as hard as you think about your first.
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Illustration by Icons 8 from Ouch!