Thoughts on descriptive writing

Just some thoughts on language and writing. Probably partly because I'm reading Leadership is Language, but also likely because of a recent focus on processes and pipelines with my team.

Lately I've been attempting to lean into a more descriptive style of writing. This is opposite to a prescriptive style of writing, which effectively tells folks what to do.

  • Descriptive: Standup starts at 10:30
  • Prescriptive: Start standup at 10:30

It seems like a minor change, but I'm finding in practice it's significantly easier to read, harder to misinterpret, and more in line with a declarative approach to outcomes, where emphasis is on the what, and not necessarily the how.

When drafting working agreements, I'm avoiding words like "you", "we", "let's", or command statements like "Do this" or "Don't do that". It's not always possible, but as a rule I try to rephrase if I notice it. And I've been noticing it all over the place. It seems to be how folks speak naturally, so therefore it's how they write. But while speaking has an immediate context and an immediate feedback loop to help clarify the signal, these don't extend to text. The reader is simply left with the message.

We don't have perfect control over which reader is reading what we wrote, or when it's being read, or the context in which it's being read. A prescriptive style of writing may challenge a reader directly, and if there's any margin for interpretation (and there always is) the reader will fill the gap, even subconciously.

This extends in a significant way to the intention of what we write. The reader might make assumptions that the author is not satisfied with their work or technique, or doesn't trust them, or wants to limit their autonomy. This can also happen with descriptive writing, but the descriptive writing will be less personal, less challenging, and should carry more context.

This is especially becoming more important as we transition from synchronous work to asynchronous work. Perhaps skilled communication is the ability to come up with text quickly that can stand more reliably on it's own.