You might be a tech genius, a gifted salesperson, or analytic whiz kid, but if you truly want to be successful in your career, you still need to learn how to write well. That’s the word from a ton of experts, and it’s also clearly the belief of Jeff Bezos. The Amazon founder famously banned PowerPoint at the company in favor of narrative six-page memos.
Writing well means not only being able to communicate clearly, it also forces you to think through complex problems. Writing, in short, makes you both more persuasive and smarter. No wonder Bezos is a fan.
So how do you master this difficult but important skill? As a professional writer I am always on the lookout for style tips and hacks to improve my writing. Many of these are useful. But according to Bezos himself these sort of quick fixes will only take you so far. It might not be what a lot of busy professionals want to hear, but if you really want to write well what you need is lots and lots of unbroken time to concentrate.
The secret ingredient for great writing: lots and lots of time
As part of an ambitious project to read through all of Bezos’s past shareholder letters Medium writer Sumit Grrg recently highlighted a section of Bezos’s 2007 letter that anyone interested in perfecting their writing should bear in mind.
In it, Bezos explains that those working to master tough skills like writing need to do two things. First, they need to recognize excellence when they see it. If you want to be great at business writing, you need to know what great business writing looks like. This is where all both lots of reading and conventional advice on grammar and phrasing come in handy.
But you need a second even more essential ingredient too. “Often when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard,” Bezos explains. Instead the problem is “a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more.”
The best memos, he goes on to say, are written and rewritten before multiple colleagues offer comments. Generally the author then sets them aside for a few days before going back to incorporate all this feedback with a fresh mind. You can see why this is a time-consuming process.
Sorry, there’s no getting around it.
This is, of course, brutal news for many of us working in frantic office environments where we spend our days bouncing between meetings and endless pinging alerts. Big blocks of unbroken time to concentrate are rare and precious. They are also essential if you want to do the kind of deep thinking and careful revisions that quality writing demands.
So read every tweet-length writing tip out there. This sort of advice contains value. But at some point, if you really want to write well, you’re going to need to close Twitter and clear your calendar for a few hours. The hard truth Bezos understands but a lot of us struggle to put into practice is you just can’t write well in bursts and snippets of time. Great writing demands sustained concentration over hours or days, and that means before you can master writing you need to master both your expectations and your insane schedule.