The Jeff Bezos Test For Great Writing
I recently read all of Jeff Bezos’s twenty-three annual letters to Amazon shareholders. And while they taught me a great deal about the genius of Bezos and Amazon, I was equally amazed by how well these letters were written and articulated.
Jeff Bezos’s 2 Rules For Meeting High Standards
In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Bezos insists upon “maintaining high standards” to stay ahead of the ever-increasing customer expectations:
“What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result – the scope,” writes Bezos.
Recognition and scope, according to Bezos, are the two most important rules to deliver high standards. And in an example that applies directly to writers, he says, “We don’t do PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos.” And the quality of these memos, Bezos admits, varies widely.
Here’s the difference between a great memo and an average one.
You Can’t Perfect a Handstand in Just Two Weeks
Average writers fail to recognize what differentiates their work from that of the top writers in their field. And this failure of recognition never propels them in the right direction. They can’t do better because they don’t understand what better looks like.
Although, at Amazon, “often when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more,” writes Bezos.
To prove his point, Bezos uses an interesting headstand analogy. He says if you try to perfect a headstand in just two weeks when in reality it takes about six months of daily practice, you’re just going to end up quitting. In other words, it’s not about hard work, it’s about having realistic beliefs on scope.
According to Bezos, great memos are:
- written and re-written,
- shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work,
- set aside for a couple of days,
- and then edited again with a fresh mind.
Again, all of these things, re-writing, editing, giving your work the room to grow, and asking for suggestions and improvements, are all really the best pieces of writing advice out there. But, “the key point”, Bezos insists, “is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo (or any piece of writing) probably should take a week or more.”
That’s How You Make Sure Your Writing Passes The Jeff Bezos High-Standard Test
In the end, make sure to follow Bezos’s two rules for great writing:
- Study the work of the top writers in your field to recognize what good looks like. And make sure you never deliver sub-par work.
- Set the scope. Truly great writing takes a little longer than just a few hours, so it’s better to have a realistic timeline to deliver good work.