Getting Things in Writing

One question I’ve learned to ask myself since I first joined the workforce is “Did I get it in writing?” Why? Well, in my experience, it’s to remember commitments that were made by clients, coworkers, and myself and to keep the right people accountable. It’s also to set and clarify expectations across the board. You can hold as many meetings as you want, but if only verbal agreements ever come out of those, how do effectively track everything that’s been said and done? Good question.

In my first month in the workforce, a coworker introduced me to this wonderful acronym: CYA (cover your ass). I loved it; it held no punches. I’d committed it to memory since then, but it took a few bad experiences to learn to take it to heart.

I used to be satisfied with verbal agreements made at the office, but as it turns out, people forget the things they say. When this happens, it’s best to avoid a he said, she said scenario, especially if you are managing up—another topic altogether—so always have documentation on hand. Who’s going to believe that you have impeccable memory, even if you truly do? Always in hindsight, I realize that I should have gotten it in writing.

Unfortunately, most of us grew up with negative feelings about getting things in writing. Does the Little Mermaid ring a bell? Ursula knew the power of the written word, and the lovesick Ariel signed her life away in a binding contract. Many lessons were learned from that Disney movie, most notably the importance of reading the fine print prior to signing a contract. But let’s not take things too far. For most people, a contract is too formal, too binding; it scares people away. Not everything needs a contract; a simple message will do.

Here are three principles I keep in mind:

  1. Clarity
    Make your intentions clear: what is the purpose of the message? And, of course, what is your message? If you need something done, state the action items. If you need help with something, ask for help. Don’t leave room for interpretation. Some people just want the facts.
  2. Brevity
    Thank you for your effort in drafting your message, but no one’s going to read that if it takes more than x minutes of their time. So what are you supposed to say? Is there a word limit for these things? This can get tricky because people have different styles of consuming content: some will stop reading after x sentences; some will only read headings. Suffice to say that people will have different advice on this one, but mine is this: if I’m on the receiving end, will I bother reading this? Edit away.
  3. Visibility
    What’s the best medium to use for communication? It differs per company, so know your audience. Clarify the official line of communication and the main stakeholders at the onset, so you can make sure that you send your message using a channel that your stakeholders have easy access to and that the right people are reading your message. You also want to make sure your message isn’t going to get buried in the noise: if someone tells you they didn’t receive your message, it should take you less than a minute to pull it up for them.

Essentially, I am saying that abiding by KISS (keep it short and simple) is no longer enough. All three aspects matter equally, which I realized as I joined companies that communicate on several platforms. I’ve found that, for some people, seeing things in writing is like taking a breath of fresh air. As for people who dislike reading, well, they’ll appreciate the more deliberate approach.

Document with purpose. Spread the word.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I have only one regret when it comes to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See: that I waited all this time to read it when I’ve had the book since 2015. I received this book as part of a book club from my first job, but I was too overwhelmed learning about clients and portfolios and all to read the book. And then I came up with more excuses through the years: the book was too long; the story seemed too sad (this was not false), and I didn’t want to feel sad at the moment. Whatever possessed me to finally pick it up this month is probably the biggest blessing the bookish me could have received in a while.

The book is set during the rise of Nazism through the German occupation of France, and it alternates points of views between Marie-Laure, who grew up solving puzzles that her locksmith father made for her and reading books that her father could procure for her (she’s particularly attached to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), and Werner, who grew up taking care of his younger sister Jutta at an orphanage and tinkering with radios and listening to broadcasts about science. I grew incredibly attached to all of the characters, especially Werner and Etienne. Although they had a different energy from the usual hero types, they didn’t go unnoticed.

And the story itself, wow. It breaks my heart to think about how everyone’s stories unfolded. It’s the kind of story that will gently take your heart, tickle it a bit, and then crush and tear it into tiny little pieces because that’s just how life is. The story is set during the war, after all. How could I have even been tricked into thinking that it could end happily? No, I am making excuses; I was not misled by the story, but I was hoping against all hope that it would end well. Hope is dangerous. So many emotions.

Novel Reactions:

After the first few chapters of, I did not know how to feel. I’d expected the book to tell the story of Larry’s misadventures over the 11-month mourning period for his father. So after the first part ended, and Larry came home, and that was that, I’d felt short-changed. I couldn’t make sense of it. Suddenly, Larry was Reb Shuli, teaching at the school. How? His (re)conversion from atheism felt rushed. What? Like it’s hard to convert your heart?

Eh, anyway, I read on. I’ve always been a fan of Nathan Englander’s writing, and I began to think that perhaps it may have been too easy or predictable for the story to have only been set over that period of time. Of course. We needed to make it all the way to a midlife crisis and see that some actions do have lasting consequences. And we needed to make up for our mistakes. What lengths do we go to make amends, and when do we call it a day?

Only remember, … if you don’t find what you need over there, in this life it’s permissible to forgive oneself too.

Nathan Englander,

No need to answer. I’ll just leave that here. Also, I haven’t come across a quote I liked that much in a while. I needed that.

Although the synopsis on the book jacket was a little misleading (i.e. the story was not about the 11-month mourning period, but then again, who told me it would be anyway?), the rest of the story flowed well. I liked the story. It was also funny in a different way… in an ‘omg no, don’t do that!’ kind of way. Man, what a character.