A few years back, one of my closest friends at Stanford, Steve Barley, made a comment that I still think of often “If you are what you do, then I am a sociologist.” Steve was making a general point (drawn from sociological theory on identity) and a specific point about himself. The general point was that the behavior that people display – regardless of their intentions and the claims they make to others – are the best indicator of both their sense of self and of how others see them. The specific point was that, although Steve is an engineering professor and his doctorate is from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, because of the intellectual tools he uses day after day in his research – things like social network theory, ethnographic methods, and theories of the sociology of work and technology – he sees himself as a sociologist (and most other scholars do too).
I have been thinking of Steve’s comment because, as I have looked back on the last year (and my last 30 years as a professor at Stanford), if you are what you do, then I am a writer. Of course, how skilled a writer I am is for others to judge. But if I look back over the past three years (especially September of 2012 through October of 2013) pretty much all I did most days was to work on the text of Scaling Up Excellence. Of course, my co-author Huggy Rao was involved heavily. We had daily discussions about the language, lessons, theory, examples, and flow. And Huggy was constantly introducing new practices and examples, and wrote initial drafts of many parts of the book. But as the book unfolded, our roles became clear: the final drafting and editing, and compulsive rounds of revision were mostly my job. This was partly because I am a control freak, partly because this my sixth business book (Huggy’s past writing had focused mainly on academic writings), and –- to return to Steve Barley’s test –- I realized that I am happiest and feel most comfortable in my own skin when I am writing, reading a draft, re-writing it, or thinking about writing.
If you start with graduate school in the late 1970s, although I did other things necessary for writing peer reviewed articles – interviews, designing and collecting survey data, data analysis, meetings with co-authors, and reading related research – my main work activity for the last 35 years day after day has been writing. What I wrote changed as I moved from being a doctoral student, to assistant professor working to get tenure, to mid-career researcher, to, now, as an academic who is mostly interested in applying academic rigor to helping people in organizations tackle real problems. But writing was and is the main thing I do and want to do.
During the final years of Scaling Up Excellence, when people asked me what was I up to, I often joked that I was trying to type myself out of solitary confinement in my garage (see above picture – that is where I do most of my serious writing and what it looks like now). But when they said “that must be tough” or “aren’t you lonely,” I said that, when it comes to my work, I am happiest when I am by myself writing. This sentiment often surprises people, as I seem like such an extrovert. And I do like being around other people – just not too much!
Another sign that my identity is as a writer is evident in what I read for fun. Huggy, who is one of the leading quantitative organizational researchers on the planet, reads statistic books for pleasure. In contrast, I have always read books about the craft of writing for pleasure (and inspiration). My belief that academics would be better writers if they read such books has got me in trouble: When I was an editor at an academic journal called the Administrative Science Quarterly, I sent a copy of Strunk & White’s classic Elements of Style to a renowned scholar (she wrote terrible sentences). She never spoke to me again (but I did detect some improvement in her writing). I especially love some of the old “Writers at Work” interviews published in the Paris Review – especially this set edited by George Plimpton. It has interviews with famous writers including T.S. Eliot, Henry Miller, and a rather grumpy Ernest Hemingway who didn’t really want to talk about his process. But Hemingway did say that every writer needs a “a built-in shock-proof shit detector.” I love that. (Update: The complete set of the Paris Review interviews are online, spanning from the 1950's to the 2010's. I have been reading through them this morning. I especially like Truman Capote from 1957 and William Gibson from 2011, but I have a couple hundred left to read)
I am also fond of Stephen King’s amazing if disjointed On Writing, I resonated with his motivation for writing this book about how he practices his craft – that he wanted people to understand that his day job was “about the language.” Along these lines,I don’t think that Huggy was quite prepared for the perhaps 1000 conversations that I initiated about the words we used and how our sentences sounded during our seven year scaling project. I was also astounded to learn that, for big hunk of Stephen King’s career, he consumed huge amounts of beer and (later) cocaine as he wrote (he was drinking a case – 24 cans – of 16oz tallboys a day before he went on the wagon in the late 1980s). He wrote The Shining and Misery when he was totally wasted (not just drunk – some days he had cotton swabs jammed in his nose to stop the bleeding from all the cocaine abuse – but he kept typing).
The business book world is a bit weird because, well, lots of people produce best sellers who don’t spend their days writing. There are a lot of ghost writers out there – much of what you read under the bylines of CEOs, consultants, and management gurus are written by others. Sometimes the writers are listed as authors and other times they are not. The first time I did an HBR article, back in about 1998, our editor Suzy Wetlaufer (now Welch, she married Jack) asked me “are you the author, the writer, or both?” I was dumbfounded by the question, but I have since learned that “writers” play an important and usually honorable role in spreading ideas about leadership, innovation, and so on. I have also learned that some great books are produced when a person with great ideas has a mind meld with a great professional writer (as happened with Creativity Inc.)
But this post is about and for people like me who are writers, or aspire to be, by Steve Barley’s definition. Writing is such a quirky and individualistic process that what works for me probably won’t work for you, but here are some of the lessons that the process of getting the scaling book done reinforced for me:
1. I go through periods where I fret and suffer over what I am going to write – I can’t write anything that meets my standards without first going such periods of purgatory. This fretting time is in addition to the research and reading that I do. I often can’t tell the difference between when I am procrastinating and when I my brain is working out what to do next – the main indication is, usually quite suddenly, I shift gears from being unable to write to being able to produce sentences and paragraphs. This process isn’t necessary for everyone. My co-author Jeff Pfeffer’s ability to just blast things out amazes me, for example. For me, as I get closer to being able to write something, I start seeing the flow in my mind’s eye and start hearing the words I am going to write in my head. For a short piece, such as this blog post, the fretting might go on for an hour or less, for the book, I spent months (and many long bike rides) trying to think of the structure, and especially the language for the book proposal – which was quite detailed (22,000 words) and then I went through another few months of such fretting before I could really start writing the book. And before I started work on each chapter, I usually had to go through about a week of this discomfort. Yes, I would talk to Huggy pretty much every day, we would meet and brainstorm, we would do interviews, talk to colleagues, and read research – but the fretting was somehow different.
2. Once I am able to produce text, my productivity is a direct function of how much time I spend at the keyboard MINUS the amount of time I spend poking around the web – emails, shopping, social media, reading news stories and weird articles, and all that other necessary stuff and addictive nonsense. Most of my lessons are pretty idiosyncratic, but my experience with doctoral students, faculty, and now people who aspire to write more for more applied audiences suggests that this lesson is universal. Talking about writing isn’t writing. Sitting in front of the screen and intending to write, but doing 10 hours of emails instead (I have had plenty of days like that), or shopping for a new dress or a new car don’t count. Nor does Facebook or Twitter.
3. One of my favorite lines in the Paris Review from comes from Aldous Huxley: "All my thoughts are second thoughts." As I’ve confessed on this blog before, all my thoughts are third, fourth, and fifth thoughts. I spend at least 50% of my productive time reading and editing drafts I already have. When I am working a chapter, I start at the beginning and read and edit almost every day before getting to the new text (even though that is usually what I have been fretting over). When a chapter is done, I put it aside for a couple days, and then go back and edit it again before showing it to anyone.
4. I edit by ear, as I have heard it called. I know that many writers have better writing styles. But I am not happy – and I feel fake – when something I write sounds like someone else. Especially in my books, there is a tone, a voice, I try to maintain throughout that sounds like --- I hope – how I talk, but is smarter and more organized. Bascially, for me, listening to the voice I hear in my head and trying to get it to sound just right to my ear is the backbone of my writing process. (Also, each of my books has a somewhat different voice – Scaling Up Excellence is less edgy than The No Asshole Rule).
I am VERY protective of my writing voice. I reject many many changes from editors and copyeditors that undermine it (in my biased opinion). And while most of what I write is grammatically correct, I will break rules when necessary. I have had some mighty good editors over the years – Julia Kirby at HBR is probably the best (she has never done a book of mine, only articles), and Rick Wolff who did The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, as well as Roger Scholl who did Scaling Up Excellence, are both skilled editors and get my voice obsession.
As an author, you’ve got to be careful because, at every stage, there are editors and others who mean well, but stamp out your spirit and make your words sound dull (For one of my books, I had an awful copyeditor who would have ruined the book – I rejected over 90% of her changes). Here, I have a suggestion for authors that most publishers won’t like, but if they were smart, they would do it routinely. Right before your book goes to the copyediting stage, insist on having a conversation with your copyeditor and explain what you are trying to accomplish, and listen to his or perspective too. And insist on seeing the editing in the first chapter after it is done. That way, you and the copyeditor won’t waste a lot of work. (Note I feel so strongly about this that I am going to start putting it in as a requirement in book contracts – copyeditors are crucial to the quality of a book, but they also are strong willed people who can kill your voice).
In general, my experience is that about 50% of the editing (of any kind) I have had makes things better and 50% makes things worse. So my attitude is that, at every stage, you need to be vigilant about people who will screw up your work, as the risk always lurks. (Warning: titles are often the worst. I can’t tell you how many articles and blog posts I have had re-titled by people who clearly didn’t read them or twisted the meaning massively. Ask for approval of any title of anything you write. A lot of publications won’t like that either – but it has your name on it).
5. As suggested above, I am obsessed with words. I am always looking for interesting words and phrases, and always trying to eliminate language that strike me as hollow or mind-numbing. Consider “adding value” and “capabilities.” I don’t know why, but as soon as I hear someone say those words or I read them, I glaze over. I never use them. I was soured on “adding value” at the World Economic Forum at Davos a few years back. I noticed that CEOs used it to avoid specifics or human emotions, and sometimes, as code for “as long as we make a lot of money, it does not matter how many evil things we do." And I don’t like the word “capabilities” because it often seems to be used by executives and experts who are talking about the skills, motivations, and experience held by the people in an organization – while, at the same time, as way to avoid digging into the nuances and messiness of how those people actually propel the organization forward.
I have kept a running list of words and phrases called “Words I Like” since about 2000. I add something about once a week. It has 795 words right now (fewer entries, as many are phrases), which range from “mangle,” to “trapped in a perpetual present tense,” to “pizzaz,” to “poisonous protection,” to “ruckus,” to “satisfying triple whammy.” The challenge – and what I strive for as I edit by ear – is to use interesting words that sound like me, but do not to distract or confuse the reader. (I dislike how publications like the New Yorker sometimes seem to use words, phrases, and obscure references that seem designed to make their readers feel dumb.) I also admit that I love and use some words too much, such as “propel,” “incite,” and “infect.” I usually have to go back through and cross out about 50% of these and other darlings because they get repetitive (a skilled editor like Roger Scholl notices and saves me from myself).
6. Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, the longer that Huggy and I worked on Scaling Up Excellence, the more of a social process the writing became. Not just between the two of us. But especially between us and the long and diverse list of people we worked with who were knee-deep in scaling challenges. That is why the Appendix is called “The Seven Year Conversation.” Getting the flow, language, and logic right required the above writing process. But we wove in additional steps to get the stories right -- to help assure both the facts, advice, and emotional tone rang true to people who are knee-deep in scaling challenges.
We constantly sent short snippets and long sections that we wrote to the stars of the book for their review and comments. We are grateful for how patient (and smart) these scaling veterans were -- including Claudia Kotchka (who led the spread of innovation practices and roles at Procter & Gamble), Bonny Simi (JetBlue), John Lilly (now a venture capitalist at Greylock), Perry Klehbahn (head of executive ed at the Stanford d. School), Dr. Louise Liang (who led an amazing scaling effort at Kaiser Permanente as they rolled out their computerized patient record system), Michael Dearing (a venture capitalist and d.school teacher), Chris Fry and Steve Green (who did impressive scaling at Salesforce.com and now are senior execs at Twitter), and many many others. We also presented our emerging ideas and key stories to at least 100 diverse audiences -- and refined the content and emphasis of the book based on what seemed interesting (and dull) to them. We did use other sources – academic research, press reports, and our own observations and experiences – that did not require such interactions. But Scaling Up Excellence is the product of a decidedly “social” approach -- even though it required thousands of hours of solo work.
Again, I am not sure that the above six ideas reflect how other writers work or will help others with their writing. Although I am pretty confident that my second point is universal, that writing productivity is a direct function of the amount of time that you actually spend writing (Stephen King might have been drunk and stoned when he was writing Misery, but he kept on working away at the manuscript).
I would be curious to hear about your writing process from those readers who practice this or a related craft. More broadly, I am curious to hear about the kinds of workplace and business writing that appeals to you (and the kinds that you can’t stand).
Finally, to return to Steve Barley’s “you are what you do,” I was simply unable to write anything but emails for about six weeks after our book was done and copyedited in early fall. But now – today is a good example– I seem to be back to myself and am spending a lot of time writing. So look for more blog posts here, at LinkedIIn, HBR, and elsewhere. We are also working on articles for various outlets -- I just did one for Wired UK that was fun, and we have multiple ideas for tying the ideas in Scaling Up Excellence to current news stories.
If you have suggestions about scaling stories we should know about or scaling themes we should write about, please let us know your thoughts.