A lot of people hate writing. But most of us like having written (as Dorothy Parker said), especially in the social sector. Strong writing can advance a career and win grants and contracts. At its best, writing can shape change. The number of toolkits and manifestos that pour out of the development and design fields shows our faith in the power of words.
But writing itself is a pain. It always takes more time (and edits) than expected. And, if you scoffed at the words “manifesto” and “toolkit,” you know how much effort goes into documents that fail to get results.
In recent weeks, I’ve led a couple of staff-wide discussions at Reboot about the writing process—what makes it hard, and what can make it better. We kept returning to the core principles of Reboot’s work. As it turns out, good writing is like good design: Both call for empathy.
Writing is difficult for the same reason that writing has power: “Words make worlds” (Andrea Cornwall). An idea or plan, once written down, becomes a commitment.
This is scary, and it makes writing hard. It’s even harder when we’re writing collaboratively, with not only multiple fears and perspectives, but also the added pressure of speaking on behalf of our entire organization.
In response to these fears, many writers end up taking one (or both) of two common shortcuts: Writing fluff, and writing in the weeds. Both are failures of empathy; both weaken the ultimate product.
Fluff is the more pernicious. Imagine a politician’s campaign website. It’s calculated to communicate clear values, but vague ideas. Most fluff in the social sector is not so cynical, but once you start looking, you’ll see a similar defensiveness everywhere. For example, when passive voice is used to avoid blame. It can also be the case, similarly, when specific individuals write with more formality than would theoretically be totally optimal, which creates the impression of intelligence but, upon closer reading, reveals itself to be redundant, repetitive, and saying the same thing over and over again.
In other words, it’s like an angora rabbit:
It’s big and impressive on first glance, but once you get through all the fluff there’s just not much actual rabbit.
Fluff is a failure of empathy because it expects the reader to do the hard work of discovering the meaning buried inside extra words. But few readers actually will; instead, fluff becomes an excuse to skim. Like the overuse of buzzwords, it offers the appearance of consensus. It’s a box-checking exercise (“report submitted”) with no real accountability.
The second shortcut, writing in the weeds, comes from admirable expertise and deep thinking. But it falls short of “good writing” because it gets stuck in context and detail without offering a larger idea. It prioritizes nuance at the expense of meaning.
One of the most common examples in the social sector is our habit of filling our sentences with lists of three:
We create products that are tailored, flexible, and adaptive.
We strive to understand people’s habits, constraints, and desires.
We developed a sustainable plan for how the business would work, grow, and thrive.
Humans love groupings of three; it appeals to our pattern recognition and sense of rhythm. And everyone in the social sector, including the most prominent organizations and leaders, uses lists of three in strong writing. But it’s overly common, and often shrouds the main idea in unnecessary nuance. Take my last hypothetical example: “Growing” and “thriving” may not be exactly the same thing (and “sustainable” is a buzzword with its own ambiguous nuance); but if we’re thinking critically, this sentence can be cut down to just five words: “We developed a business plan.”
Looking for lists of three is a great signpost to start editing more critically. You’ll be surprised how often the three things are actually just one.
Good writing requires standing back and seeing the big picture. The examples and details that back up your argument must come later. Every reader is approaching your work cold. The trick is to invite them in and give them a comfortable place to settle in. Which brings us back again to empathy.
To practice empathy, actively imagine another person’s internal experience and motivations. This is not “defining your audience,” which we learn in grade school. That exercise is usually limited to deciding whether you’ll write formally or informally. Empathy transcends your reader’s formality and expertise; it asks you to care about your reader’s time.
Your reader is a real person with goals and a full inbox. Maybe she’s Gisla, who is tired of flipping to the appendix for what MIC means. Maybe he’s Nandor, who just spilled coffee on his sleeve and is short on patience. Or maybe she’s Leila, who feels that her career success this month depends on summarizing your 40-page report for her boss.
Empathetic writing invites the reader into your work; offers a summary of what information or argument you will deliver; and commits to explaining why it’s important.
Some defend writing-in-the-weeds when writing for experts. It’s true that you can (and often have to) pack more context and technical detail in to give a more advanced audience something they don’t already know. But even experts spill coffee on their sleeves. Empathy reminds you to respect the reader’s right to close the tab.
Empathy has a role in preventing fluff writing, too: Imagining Gisla’s eyes glazing over can help you edit phrases like “it is true that persistent inequalities exist that are less than optimal.” But to make the biggest dent in fluff, to write with clarity and conviction, we have to stop worrying so much about what the reader might think.
But that doesn’t mean letting go of empathy entirely. Strong writing maintains a powerful sense of empathy for not just readers, but the people we’re writing about. This is a special consideration for the social sector, where we’re often writing for an audience with a lot of power, about people with very little. Our report on an HIV harm reduction program will be read by a program staff member at a foundation; the people in the report are living with HIV.
This disparity between reader and subject is one of the writer’s most urgent obligations to avoid fluff writing: It obscures the human stories behind our work. That can only weaken our arguments; instead of change, our work will support the status quo.
Those manifestos and toolkits pouring out of the development space are not wasted efforts. Writing with weeds and fluff is often part of the first draft on the way to stronger work; the writing process can help us find those weak points and hard decisions. And in a field where weaker writing is too common, those who can communicate with clarity and empathy have even better chances of being heard.
Writing can change the world. But we have to put in the effort.
Kate Reed Petty is a writer and editor who has worked as a strategic advisor to Reboot since 2011.