About writing beyond academic papers

The Art of Writing Effectively is a fabulous lecture by Larry McEnerney, Director of the University of Chicago’s Writing Program, on being an expert and conveying your ideas.

The lecture and a related workshop called Writing Beyond the Academy take around 3 hours of time to watch. It’s time worth spending, but if you want a quick overview, here are my notes.

LEADERSHIP LAB: The Craft of Writing Effectively

TL;DR

Stop thinking about writing rules, start thinking about readers.

Writing vs. Reading

You are writing about a topic where you have expert knowledge. You are not a student writing essays anymore.

You are using your writing process to think.

But if you write for others, there is a problem. Reading uses different patterns than writing.

A reader does not have your previous knowledge. They need a different type of writing to understand your ideas.

Writing is thus not about rule-following. Forget rules like “don’t use passive voice”. You need to control the reading process, so that readers can understand your material.

Why Do Readers Read?

In academics, readers are paid to care. A professor’s job is to read and grade your papers.

In the real world, readers read because they think it’s valuable to them.

If you use the wrong writing style, a reader will have 3 problems:

  1. the reader slows down while reading
  2. the reader misunderstands
  3. the reader gets frustrated

In the end, the reader might stop reading, and you’ve lost your audience.

Your goal as a writer is to change the way the reader sees the world.

Value doesn’t lie in your ideas of the world.
The ultimate metric is: Does the reader find it useful for them?

Your writing needs to concentrate on the reader, not the content.

The Value of Writing

Your writing needs to be: valuable > persuasive > organized > clear.

  • clear & useless = useless
  • organized & useless = useless
  • persuasive & useless = useless

Writing needs to be valuable.

Writing is not communicating your ideas to your readers. Professional writing is about changing the readers' ideas.

Nobody is interested in what’s inside your head. Don’t explain to show that you’ve understood a topic.

Readers determine what is valuable, what is knowledge. Not you.

The classic model of knowledge is accumulative. We start from a stable foundation. Old knowledge remains valuable, new information adds to it.

Let’s think about a different kind of model. What if the value of knowledge is determined by a community? The community changes over time. What’s valuable is malleable. Knowledge moves through time.

Every community has a code that signifies value.

That means that you need to know your readers.

About Your Readers

The function of writing is to help the reader understand something better that they want to understand well.

Here is how to think about it: “Community, I read all your stuff and it’s amazing, but there is this tiny thing where you are wrong”. Now you can present your argument.

Ask yourself: for whom is my writing? Who are my readers?

You want to move the conversation (of the community) forward.

Martini Glass of Writing

The writing model you learned in school is like this:

  1. Start the introduction from a solid foundation (generalizations, background information, definitions)
  2. Explain the development of your argument
  3. End with conclusions and generalizations

You can visualize the model as a martini glass: we start with generalizations (broad), go into specifics (narrow), but end again with generalizations (broad).

Here is the model that lecturer suggests:

  1. Expose a problem (located in something the community cares about)
  2. Move to the solution

Problems have 2 characteristics: instability and costs/benefits.

Instability creates tension. Instability offers a challenge to the status quo. Show that the problem/instability imposes a cost on the reader, or that the instability, if it’s solved, offers a benefit to them.

Now you’ve captured the reader’s interest.

You don’t need to highlight a gap of knowledge. This technique only makes sense in a bounded model of knowledge.
In the infinite model of knowledge filling a gap doesn’t help. Infinite gaps are still left. A knowledge gap doesn’t intrinsically offer any value to the reader.

A different method is the language of error. Show what’s at stake because the existing knowledge is incorrect.

Thoughts

I originally didn’t want to share this blog post. I was not sure if I could do a good job on capturing the essence of the talk.

In the spirit of the lecture’s message, I decided to give it a try and to provide value for you.

Make sure to check out the original YouTube video with annotations. I also recommend reading the summary by Robin Cussol.