October 13, 2010

How to Be a Speed Writer

This is the third in a series of conversations on personal productivity between Bob Pozen, chairman emeritus of MFS Investment and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and Justin Fox, editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group. The first is on Pozen's daily routine; thesecond is about speed reading.

Pozen is also a speedy writer — of op-eds, HBR articles, a mutual-fund industry textbook now headed into its third edition, and an acclaimed 457-page account of the financial crisis and its causes, Too Big To Save? How to Fix the US Financial System, which was published late in 2009. (Fox, in case you're wondering, took more than five years to finish the only book he's ever written.)

JF: How long did it take you to write the financial crisis book?

I started in January of 2009 and put the manuscript to bed in August that year.

JF: That's very impressive. How do you write so quickly?

A lot of people confuse a thinking problem with a writing problem. In order to write quickly, I need to see the line of argument very clearly. If I don't fully understand the line of argument, I cannot write even a paragraph. My brain won't let my pen move.

In order to spell out the logic of the argument, you need to compose an outline before writing. Only by playing around with an outline can you get comfortable with the key steps in the argument. For an article or a speech, an outline does not have to be long or detailed. Just the four or five key points, with a few sub-points under each.

After you clarify your thinking by writing an outline, you've got to be willing to write a first draft that is rough. Most people feel they have to write a really good first draft and that's why they get writer's block. In many cases, it's only when you actually finish your first draft that it comes to you how the whole piece fits together.

JF: Is your writing process the same for a book as for an article?

With a book, the process is more complicated. I wrote a detailed outline of my financial crisis book and then solicited comments from many experts. After revising the outline, I recruited a research assistant to work on each of the chapters. After reviewing the research, I developed a good sense of what I was going to say in each chapter and then wrote a rough draft. Once I had rough drafts for all fourteen chapters, I revised my outline again and rewrote all of the chapters. When I had a final version, I asked someone to put together and check out all the footnotes — which was a great help.

I believe the book was so favorably received because it is the only one with detailed recommendations on how to fix the financial system — which were printed in boldface. It also has a summary at the end of each chapter. However, I don't know if it is worth all the extra work to write a nonfiction book, as opposed to several articles. I occasionally read a book, though now I have stopped reading the books on the financial crisis because there are too many.

JF: What about reading and answering emails?

I have a strategy for answering emails. The first thing to do is to decide not to look at a lot of emails. Many of them are spam emails sent out to hundreds or thousands of people. Second, if there are important emails, I try to answer them right away. The main exception is emails with lengthy attachments. I send them to my assistant and ask her to print them out for me. I also ask her to print out important emails that I do not have time to answer right away. So the next morning, I have on my desk hard copies of the significant attachments and the few important emails I have not yet responded to.

JF: Do you restrict your e-mailing to a certain period of time each day?

No, email comes all the time so you have to answer emails several times a day. Otherwise you get far behind and overwhelmed.

However, I've learned the hard way that some people are very offended if you look at your Blackberry during meetings. This is a point of modern etiquette that deserves a discussion among the members of a group that meets regularly. For example, one board I serve on has decided to have email breaks every 90 minutes, but to prohibit email during the rest of the board meeting.

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