Growing up, amongst all the superheroes, I was most inspired by Batman. The top reason was that he was an ordinary person, but his tools made him extraordinary. As a software engineer, I loved tools/apps that gave me superpowers - going from vim to IntelliJ - superpower, switching from mouse to keyboard shortcuts - superpower. You get the idea. Over the years, there were several soft skills I picked up, that fall into a similar bucket of superpowers. The top 3 for me are - writing, speaking, and empathy. In this article, I’ll share how writing has helped me and some tips for you to turn it into your superpower.
Improving the speed of writing, thinking, and communicating
One foundational skill needed to be a good writer is typing and improving the speed of typing has exponential benefits. I tend to be much faster at typing than writing by hand. With a good pace of typing, it seems like writing can keep up with the speed of thinking (not kidding).
I have tried several methods for speeding up my thinking process to be more productive, and for me, the simple framework of breaking down my thoughts into bullets first and then reorganizing by theme is the most effective one. The most common use of this format is meeting notes. It lends itself well as raw material for writing more formal documents like a proposal or design documents.
A forcing function of the pandemic was hosting a meeting for every discussion. In an attempt to reduce zoom meetings, I switched to writing my discussion points and then sharing them with the intended audience as a pre-read. A nice side effect of this was if there was agreement and alignment, these could be quickly resolved without a meeting. This also reduced the number of on-the-fly thinking situations and was a forcing function to structure my thoughts better, since I wrote them down.
Using structures and templates to avoid a cold start
Starting from a blank slate always feels intimidating. Relying on templates and structures was extremely valuable in getting a head start. In addition, setting up pre-defined structures and templates forced me to make specific considerations that I would have otherwise overlooked. For example when writing an engineering design document, having a checklist of considerations that are essential to a good design was a great tool to keep me honest. Similarly using a template for retrospective documents or product launch emails quickly accelerated my writing without having to start from scratch.
Write once polish twice
I would frequently get trapped in trying to write the absolute best line or paragraph, rewriting several times until satisfied. This was slow. One piece of advice I heard from an author was to write once and polish twice. This approach vastly improved the quality of what I wanted to communicate. It applied to several scenarios, from a small blurb like a code review or design review comment to long-form engineering design documents, project proposals, and even blog posts like this one. Breaking out the write and polish phases had one huge benefit. In the writing phase, I could dedicate all my attention to the intended content without worrying about perfection. Having a follow-up polish step gave me the space to use a reviewer’s lens and make the necessary revisions before publishing.
Write for your future self
Writing technical documents, notes, or reflections on a topic over time turns into a treasure trove of artifacts that helps reinforce learning and revisit some of my beliefs and assumptions. Ensuring all my writing is digital makes it easy to aggregate, highlight, summarize and eventually search. For my personal writing (and reading) there’s a little ecosystem I have come to rely on, it’s a combination of apps - Notion, Grammarly, Readwise, and Instapaper. I extensively take sidebar notes on articles, which in turn become searchable, and a handy reference when I need them later. Eventually, this system feels like a concrete knowledge base and a natural extension of my brain.
At first writing for an audience (colleagues at work or blog post readers) felt intimidating. Using the tips shared here, over time writing became an enjoyable activity and a superpower. What are some of your tips for writing?
Shoutout to Bef Ayenew for being generous with his time and providing valuable feedback on this article.