Write it Down

Posted by bob on February 1, 2016

You will be better than 90% of your competition, if you just follow this one rule: Write it down.

What?  “Hey, what do you mean by write it down?”  Why not up?  Why not left, or right?

Okay, yes, the English expression “write it down” is an idiom.  It typically means to write the information on paper.  Of course today it is much better to capture that information in some electronic form.

When we capture our ideas in writing, those ideas are then available to us for as long as we keep and read those records.

The English idiom “write it up” can mean the same thing, but often is used to imply we want to explain something more completely or with additional details.  There is no special meaning to “write it left” but “write it right” becomes a bit of a play on words, since “right” can mean “correctly” instead of a direction.

When I speak of writing something right or correctly, I am not worrying about grammar or spelling, even though those are significant.  (Tools like Microsoft Word will tell you immediately if the spelling or phrasing of your sentences fall outside of normal guidelines.)  By correctly, I mean that you should write simply, clearly, and completely to capture an idea.

If you are trying to record the features of something, a complete list might be far more important than having a partial list.  When you are trying to describe a problem, an accurate list of conditions and tests will be more important than pretty formatting. 

Ask yourself: Could someone with just a little familiarity of the subject read your writing and understand most of what you have written?  Are you using uncommon jargon?  Do you expand your acronyms the first time you write them?

Did you embed a few simple diagrams (sketches, photos, drawings, or charts) that enhance the reader’s ability to understand?

I have emails going back over 20 years, and some paper documents from 30 years ago that I have scanned into electronic form.  Sometimes that can be good and sometimes that permanence can be troubling.  For example, if I wrote an email or document when I was angry, it can be embarrassing to later realize how intolerant or ignorant I was at the time.

One really important aspect of this advice is to make sure you store these writings somewhere that they can easily be found by the people needing to find them.  Companies use all kinds of computer systems to archive and organize important documents.  A long time ago, we used to have loose-leaf notebooks full of paper documents to keep and organize our plans and progress during a project. 

Today, that “notebook” is typically some kind of folder organization on a shared file-server.  Extremely well-managed companies put a lot of effort into indexing and keeping track of the contents of these documents.  Version tracking is another important feature of the best document management systems.

But let me assure you that no matter how hard I try (or other folks try) to get people to record important facts, opinions, or ideas, there continue to be far too many people who depend on verbal communication and human memory. 

This is a guaranteed path to disaster, yet so many people simply ignore the risk.  “I told you that,” they will say.  Maybe they did and maybe they did not.  But without a written or electronic copy, stored in a place that you can easily find it, they did not do their job.

There is another troubling approach that some people follow.  They only record their ideas in email.  They send these emails to a few people directly involved with their project.  Unfortunately, those emails are never converted to a document that can be stored in a project archive.  Although it is possible to save the email itself as a standalone document, such a document might be in a proprietary format that is difficult to recover later.

I have frequently written that the output of an engineer is a stack of documents telling somebody else how to do something.  In the past, those documents were a physical stack of paper, but today those documents need to be electronic files in widely supported formats.  It even makes sense to worry (a little) about the quality of your company’s data backup system.  Make sure they have a good system to retain your hard work.

Taken as a whole, these arguments are why I say that you can put yourself ahead of 90% of your competition if you will just write it down.  Or maybe I should say, “Just write it right.”  Or “Just write it, right?”