36 tips for lean writing

I recently met with a client at a large firm that’s trying to introduce “lean” working processes across the organisation. His team of writers were producing distinctly unlean documents, which is why he needed help. “Lean" processes were first developed in Japanese manufacturing firms in the 1940s and the concept has spread to other businesses. The idea is that you don’t waste resources on anything that doesn’t “add value” to the end customer. It’s about achieving more with less.

We’re not massively keen on those MBA-ishly jargony words “adding value”, but we do think there’s something in this idea of lean production. Here’s how we think lean principles apply to writing.

Write for customers, not readers

1. Yes, your writing is a product aimed at a customer. Writing for a “reader” wrongly assumes an already captive audience. Writing for a potential customer makes you work to grab – and keep – their interest.

2. Know exactly who your customer is. If you’re writing for investors, they’re your customers, not your boss. If you’re writing for employees, they’re your customers, not that “stakeholder” in HR.

3. There’s usually a difference between what’s important to you (or your boss or your “stakeholder”) and what’s important to your customer. Know the difference. Learn to spot it instantly.

4. Kill your darlings. Delete everything that’s important to you or (or your boss or your stakeholder) but not to your customer.

5. Ditch the word “stakeholder”. It sends the signal that your job as a writer is to add value for them as readers, not your customer.

Make the value obvious to your customer

6. In lean theory, “value” is any action or process a customer would be willing to pay for. Sobering, eh? Follow the lead of one journalist we know and put a sign above your desk saying “nobody has to read this crap”.

7. Always write with a purpose. Before you start, ask yourself “what do I want my customer to do as a result of reading this?”.

8. Anticipate customer demand. Always ask “what customer need is this piece of writing meeting?”. No customer need? No need to write.

9. Identify the information that’s most valuable to your customer and lead with it. Arrange your points in descending order of importance to your customer.

10. Avoid spin. Ask yourself honestly if telling your customer you’re a “world-class innovator” (whatever that means) really adds value to them (or just the corporate ego).

11. Empty apologies don’t add value. So never say sorry if you don’t mean it.

12. Never say sorry if you don’t plan to fix the problem.

13. Be specific, not general. Concrete not abstract. Telling a customer you’re “committed to delivering efficiency” tells them nothing at all. Telling them you can save them £1,000 adds value.

14. Learn to spot and strip your writing of corporate cliché. Your customer is bombarded daily with meaningless drivel about “delivering innovative solutions” and “driving a passion for excellence”. Phrases like these just add background noise, not value.

15. Put your customer first by using the word “you” more than “I” or “we”. Always count these personal pronouns in your work. Revise if the balance is wrong.

16. Make it easy for your customer to scan your work for what matters to them. Make short paragraphs, bullet points, headers and subheads part of your writer’s armoury.

17. Put your headers and subheads to work by making them informative, not blah. A header like “What we need to do next” adds more value to your customer than “Strategic update”.

Streamline your production process

18. Yes, understand that writing is a process. Following some basic principles like the ones listed here will serve you better than worrying about being “creative”. Don’t get hung up on the myth of the Muse.

19. Encourage everyone in your organisation to take personal responsibility for writing that adds value to the customer.

20. Slash the number of “stakeholders” whose “sign-off” or “approval” you need to get the thing written.

21. Ditch words like “sign off” and “approval”. Instead, put one person in charge of quality control.

22. Audit your writing process to find out where the inefficiencies lie. Compare strategic_update_v1.doc with strategic_update_v17.doc and ask how much value each version added. If the end product’s not 17 times better, you’re wasting resources.

23. If a colleague can’t articulate what’s wrong with a piece of writing beyond vague statements like “I’m not sure the tone’s right”, don’t waste time changing it.

24. Lean businesses avoid overproduction. So don’t write for the sake of it. Always ask “what happens if we don’t publish?” No dire consequences? No need to publish.

25. Avoid overproduction by setting a tight word count from the outset. Learn to enjoy the cold, hard, sobering rigour of sticking to it.

26. Run your work through the Writer’s Diet tool, which tells you if your writing style is lean or flabby.

27. Invest time in compiling a company style guide, or pick an existing one and stick to it. Having to ask yourself “do we write ‘10’ or ‘ten’?” every time wastes time, energy and brain space.

Eliminate waste

28. Don’t waste your customer’s time by frazzling their brain. Keep things clean and simple.

29. Invest time and effort in being clean and simple. As Steve Jobs once said: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

30. Trying to add value for your customer is not the same as trying to impress them. If you found it in a thesaurus, it’s the wrong word. Even if it only sounds like you found it in a thesaurus, it's still the wrong word.

31. Don’t waste letters. As George Orwell said: “Never use a long word when a short one will do”.

32. Trim wasted words. Don’t expend pixels on a phrase like “in the event that” when “if” will do.

33. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about writing it right (right away). First get it written, then make it right.

34. When you’re done with a piece of writing, go back and cut 20%. Trust us, it’s possible.

35. Feel free to ignore outdated rules about not starting sentences with “and” or not splitting infinitives. Eliminating non-mistakes doesn’t add value to your customer.

36. But if your customer is intractably pedantic about outdated grammar rules, don’t ignore them. Remember, it’s what’s valuable to the customer that counts.

What are your tips for lean writing? Tell us in the comments.