3 min read

Break the shackles and free your writing

Break the shackles and free your writing
image shows a woman holding a scarf behind her that is blowing in the wind

This one might be a little controversial, but I think it is best to be honest. I hate templates (for writing). There, I said it.

Often, when I am coaching people about writing, they ask if they have a template, and I will admit I have asked this same question in the past. But a very wise Amazonian (Heather, I’m looking at you), helped teach me why templates can be more of a hindrance than a help.

Let's first explore why people crave templates. This I think is easier to answer. Templates conjure up an image of safety and security, and can act as a crutch for people. They rid the writer of the blank word doc, with the aggressively blinking cursor, seemingly mocking you for not knowing where to start. A template can seem to provide a starting point, a guide, and a way to structure your thoughts. And if you are writing a set of instructions a template is probably a good place to start.

For more visionary, narrative-like documents, a template can stifle the real story you want to tell, because it implies that every document of this type is similar to the others that went before. I think this is where the problem lies.

I remember being asked to write a Product Roadmap and was given a template. My product wasn’t a standard technical product like many of the ones my peers managed, instead it was a geographical region and my task was to dive into how we could improve developer experience there. I stuck to the template and my roadmap was terrible. At the pre-review it was confirmed what I suspected. The template was hindering me. I scrapped the template the day before I was due to present to leadership and started again. For this version I mapped out the story I wanted to tell, outlined what I thought my reader needed to know, and how my vision would work in practice. It was reviewed and praised by my reader for the simplicity in which I walked them through this complex subject.

When I’ve shared a template with people they tend to stick to it religiously – headings and all. And it makes the doc stunted and hard to read. Writing should be all about how you convey an idea or need to your reader. The reader being your customer. So if you are writing in a way that makes it easy for you, it is likely to make it tough for your reader. Think about the story you need to tell in order to bring your reader along.

When I review written assignments for future Amazon hires their stories differ so widely. That in part is because each story is unique to the writer. They hone in on what is important to them, and what they want their reader to take away (or at least this is what I try to get them to do!). I suggest loosely following the STAR framework, as they would in a verbal interview. But how much time a person spends talking about their role or the problem will differ, as will the level of detail they choose to go into, and ultimately where they put their focus. Candidates often ask for a template. I refuse. Instead I provide guidance on how to tell their story more effectively.

For vision documents, I shy away from distinct headers or sub sections. I focus on the story I want to tell. I think about the audience I am writing for, and what they already know and what they don’t; What does the business look like today, what do we want it to look like 12 months or 3 years from now, and do we need to do to move take towards that vision. It is a good starting point. I also step away from Word and pick up a pen and paper. I map it out, I plan the story and then I write. And when I write, I do nothing but write.

My challenge to you, next time you have to write don’t ask for a template. Plan the story you want tell and create the document your reader needs.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and also what you’d like me to cover in future articles.