A New Way to Think
Getting to Know Me III
The Process by Which I Write
As I explained in my first post in this series, the Medium folks reached out to one hundred of their regular authors to write the following four posts that would enable the Medium readers to get to know us better:
3. The Process by Which I Write
4. How I Got Interested in My Subject Matter
I decided to publish them in conjunction with the May 3 release of my new book, A New Way to Think, and this is the third post in the series.
How I Write
The most important advice I ever received on writing was so counter-intuitive that it barely made it through my defenses. The provider was Bernard Avishai who I hired at Monitor Company at some point in the early 1990s. At the time, I was one of the four members of the Monitor Company Global Executive Committee (GXC). Mark Fuller was CEO, the late Mark Thomas was head of all things people (entitled the Professional Network), Joe Fuller was head of sales and marketing (Client Network), and I was head of the research & development function (Ideas Network). As a young firm less than a decade old at the time, we hadn’t published enough and I hired Bernie, who had been a highly successful Harvard Business Review (HBR) Senior Editor, to lead our efforts to get our ideas published in books and articles.
Bernie is a terrific guy and was always fun to spend time with. After both of our careers at Monitor, he sent his daughter Ellie to do her MBA at the Rotman School while I was Dean, and she went on to do tremendous things applying Integrative Thinking to the K-12 education domain. Like her father, she is brilliant and bold.
At one of my meetings with Bernie, I was complaining about how many times that I had to edit my CEO memos before they were ready to send and told him that I hoped that someday I would be able to write like him — it would just flow out of my mind onto the paper in near to final form.
Bernie laughed and told me that I must believe that one thinks to write. “Duh, of course, I think in order to write,” I responded. Then Bernie explained that instead, one writes to think. The human mind can only think so much without seeing a written manifestation of its thinking. You need to write down your thinking, however primitive, to be able to look at it and say: “That is not quite right.” Then you will be able to figure out how to make it better. And then by looking at the resulting improvement, you will be capable of saying: “That is still not quite right.” And so on, until it is a much more sophisticated view of your thinking.
Bernie taught me that editing is a feature of the writing process, not a bug. Now I don’t begrudge editing. I realize that it is just part of the process of helping me think. I love the process of editing! Nothing that anyone sees from me on Medium has been edited less than 20 times. Each time, it is a slightly better expression of what is in my head.
It has helped me write more happily, in fact really happily. Thank you, Bernie.
The other thing I have learned through writing many, many books and articles is to not waste time on prose. Prose is expensive. I hate to waste time on prose that is not yet thought through enough.
That is why everything I write starts with a logical structure. My books, for example, start with a 2,500-word logical structure — in dot points, not full sentences. I don’t want to commit to writing full sentences or, God forbid, full paragraphs, or even worse, entire case examples/studies, before knowing more about their true purpose.
So, I work through many editorial cycles before committing to prose. And then, I only build prose slowly through many cycles of editing. That enables me to avoid wasting useless prose. I want only prose that I am build slowly but surely over the course of many editing cycles. Sure, I throw lots away. That is the price of advancing the precision of thinking. But I try to throw away as little as I can.
Those are the two pieces of advice I would give any writer — editing is a feature not a bug; and don’t waste prose unnecessarily. If you pay attention to these two things, you will be a happier and more productive writer.