Writing To Be Understood

I want to share with you an exchange I just had with a contract employee. I hope it will change the way you think about your writing.

First, Brief Background

I don’t intend to write every word of the content my firm creates. That’s an inefficient use of my time and it doesn’t scale. I’ll create the truly unique content, but much of the law-specific content already exists and just needs my firm’s unique spin.

So I hired someone. Her name is Patty, and she’s great. When I described the job to her, she saw an opportunity to use her English degree. As a fellow liberal arts grad, I can imagine how unique and satisfying that must be.

I gave her an assignment: to read through a couple of publicly-available guides, internalize them, and rewrite them using our tone and culture. She took a good pass at it, but I needed to clear some things up.

My Advice To Patty

After reading Patty’s first attempt to incorporate my tone, I saw some tendencies I’d like to squash now.

Here are a couple of thoughts from my email back to her:

There’s something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The famous version of it is that unskilled people tend to overestimate their own abilities. The corollary that most people don’t talk about is that highly skilled people tend to overestimate the abilities of others. This is the “curse of knowledge,” and we have to beat that.
You’re a highly skilled person. You have even read a guide, so you know more than anyone else who is ever going to read your document. You have to talk to the newbie.

Dunning-Kruger and its corollary, the “curse of knowledge,” are killers of real learning. Both the teacher and the student are content to pretend like knowledge changes hands. No one wants to admit they failed in their job, whether to train or to understand, so we create useless words and change nothing.

To give specifics, I rewrote her first sentence from this:

An Independent Administrator of an estate is appointed to the position by the Court. The position carries a great deal of responsibility.

To this:

You’ve lost a family member, and now you have to deal with a court. What a burden that is. Your parent or spouse has decided that you can be trusted with what comes next. Do you feel ready?

The Purpose Of Your Writing

Now, you may not like the tone of my rewrite. You may want to be more “professional.” But that misses the point of teaching like a lawyer.

Your content serves two purposes:

  1. To build authority
  2. To express empathy

No one will buy from you until those two boxes are checked. Writing a manual that confuses and frightens builds no empathy. Please, don’t do it.

Don’t Write For You

If you have a minute, read through this study.

If not, let me give you the short version: you should write at a 7th grade level (at most). That’s how most people read, and it’s the most effective target to both build authority and express empathy. What’s good enough for Ernest Hemingway is good enough for you.

Patty will need a lot of patience to understand me. I know how unusual my requests seem. But I want my prospective clients to know that I care about them and that I genuinely want them to understand their options. Proper teaching will more effectively lead to the kind of trust needed to justify a purchase.

Write to be understood, not to impress. That’s how your work will truly have impact.

Let's Work Together