Writing is actually thinking

The most important factor in good writing isn’t the quality of its style but the quality of its ideas. Style matters for sure, but content matters even more. At least, that’s my conclusion when I look back at the writing I do to help businesses position themselves.

I’ve done a lot of work for startups this year. It’s partly a coincidence but I suspect it reflects the growing entrepreneurial and startup culture in the Bristol area (and the wider UK). One of the joys of working with a startup is that they usually haven’t yet presented themselves to the world, or if they have it’s only in an embryonic way. So I can help them shape the thing they’re becoming.

My job in these situations isn’t to express as powerfully as possible an existing message, which is often the case with more established organisations (in other words, focus on style). It’s to help the startups work out what exactly they want to say.

Sometimes my job is in fact to help them work out what it is they actually offer people. You’d think that was obvious, but it’s often not. They’ve had a neat idea, they’ve managed to get funding for it, but they may still be unclear on the real essence of their proposition. What are they really doing for people?

So we get stuck into questions like what problems are you solving for people? What do they really care about? What does your service do that your competitors don’t? Why does that matter to anyone? And so on. We’re trying to work out what they do in the simplest possible terms. And that’s an idea. It doesn’t need to be expressed in language that sings a beautiful melody, not at that point. It needs to be a powerful thought.

(Incidentally, when businesses spend countless hours trying to pin down their value proposition, with the feeling that there’s a slight problem with the wording – well, there’s usually a problem with the thinking behind the proposition, not just the wording.)

This kind of work is helping businesses get their thinking in order. Once the ideas are lined up into a clear message, the most important work is done. This is the difference we make. It’s often a big relief for the people in the startup to have real clarity on what they do and why. Expressing that in the most simple, hard-hitting language is the final step, and it’s not the hardest step.

The far harder job, as a writer, is trying to come up with something powerful and memorable when the underlying ideas are weak. Powerful writing ultimately depends on powerful ideas.

It’s often the case, in fact, that the problems with the ideas themselves only come to light when you’re trying to write them really effectively. Cliched, jargon-packed writing is very effective at hiding poor thinking.

Good writing is good thinking.

So if you’re struggling to write something, it’s worth asking the question: what are we actually trying to say here? Step back from the perfect phrasing you’re trying to achieve and ask yourself what the underlying message is. And if you struggle to write that down in a few clear points, you know where the problem lies.