That’s how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos describe the standard or goal he sets for himself and his executive team. (https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-ceo-jeff-bezos-memo-advice-2018-4)
And he’s quick to admit it isn’t at all easy to meet that standard; more than anything else, he says, it requires time: “The great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind.”
“Written and re-written.” In other words, writing is re-writing!
That shouldn’t surprise anyone, but that point struck me sharply several years ago when I heard a radio essay read aloud by a New England-based political commentator, Jack Beatty. Beatty was expressing almost tearful admiration and gratitude for the staff at the nursing home caring for his mother.
I found his remarks quite moving–written and spoken with the “clarity of angels”–so I contacted him to ask for a printed copy. He told me he had to dig it out of the waste basket and apologized that he couldn’t give me a “clean copy.”
I’m glad he didn’t: with its many scribbled deletions and insertions, it offered an important lesson–that “writing is rewriting”—even, or especially, for an established craftsman.
My guess is that some of those edits probably occurred to Beatty as he read his words aloud in preparation for the broadcast. That’s another good lesson: there’s often great value in speaking aloud what we’re writing—especially if our email, report or speech, though meant primarily for the eye and not the ear, addresses sensitive matters.
Fellow billionaire Warren Buffet doesn’t invoke celestial beings, but he would surely agree that “writing is re-writing;” starting with a clear understanding of our readers—what they know and what they care about. (as quoted in HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner; page 9; Harvard Business Review Press; 2012, Boston, MA):
“In his preface to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffet suggests grounding your prose by having a particular reader in mind:
When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.