The Iron Imperative of writing: don’t waste my time

Iron imperativeWhen writing documents, posts, or emails, keep one thing in mind above all others. I call it the Iron Imperative of writing:

Do not waste the reader’s time.

To help you internalize this, remember the Golden Corollary:

Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.

To act on this, you must internalize the Impatience Postulate:

Assume that your reader is quite impatient and has other things to do.

I know you’re busy. But so is your reader. When you cut corners or fail to think about the reader’s experience, you’re being selfish. The reader will sigh exasperatedly, skip to the next email, or flip to Facebook. Your message will fail.

Conversely, when you help the reader to be more efficient, she will remember you, think highly of you, and come back to you in the future.

This advice has consequences for your content and your process.  Here’s what it means for content:

  • Get to the point. Don’t ease us in to the content (“I had a few thoughts about features over my morning coffee this morning.”). Hit us right away. (“We need to build in GPS. Here’s why.”)
  • Skip the fluff. Insecure writers make things worse when they introduce writing with informal asides, musings about the weather or sports results, apologies for missing information or poor writing, or worst of all, exclamation points and emoticons. When I read this filler, I think “Why am I wasting my time on this?” And I’m not alone.
  • Root out duplication. Reread what you wrote. Did you basically say the same thing twice? Figure out where it belongs, and delete the repeated material.
  • Move the key insight to the top. Did you finally figure out what you were saying at the end of your post or email? Take that statement and put it at the top. Replace the weak opening you write with the point the matters.
  • In an email, the subject line must match the content. “Why we must not release the product yet” is far more effective than “Some more thoughts about the release schedule.” This is important when your reader first reads the email, but crucial when it becomes part of a long thread. When the subject line reads “Re: Re: Re: . . . and there’s also this” the reader forgets your original point.

When it comes to process, the golden corollary dictates that you don’t publish first drafts. It means making things better before publishing, because their time is more valuable than yours. It means you should:

  • Ask an experienced writer or editor to make suggestions, and then address them before publishing.
    • Haven’t got time for that? Just ask a colleague to look it over. Or post an idea on Twitter or Facebook and see what people think of it.
      • No time for that? Let it sit overnight, then re-read it in the morning and see if you can make it better.
        • Can’t wait overnight? Wait an hour and go back and reread it.
          • If you haven’t got an hour, just reread it once and revise before sending it out.
            • No time to revise? Who are you kidding? You think your time is more valuable than the reader’s. You have forsaken the golden corollary.

Post the Iron Imperative, Golden Corollary, and Impatience Postulate where you’ll see them when you’re writing. They’re easy to forget. And if you ignore them when you’re writing, you be easy to forget, too.

Graphic: Wikimedia Commons

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  1. I’ve often heard it described as “don’t be boring”.

    And David Foster Wallace had a great way to describe a successful opening to a story: It must fail to repel the audience.