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Signal v. Noise: Writing

Our Most Recent Posts on Writing

Embracing slow time

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 23 comments

When you work in a traditional office and have a question, instant gratification is hard to resist. It’s so easy. Just stumble over to a co-worker’s desk, make sure they stop whatever it was they were doing, blather on until the lights of recognition come on in their eyes, then await the answer. Unless your query concerns inflammable materials currently engulfed in said flames you’ve likely wasted their time – in fact, you may have even wasted your own.

One of my favorite side-effects of working remotely is the way slow-time communication forces you to stop and think before you speak. When I have a question for one of our programmers, for example, here’s a bit of what goes through my head:
How should I ask this question? He’s online, I could just send a quick IM…
...but is this important enough to risk interrupting with an instant message? No. I’m not even sure I can even explain it one line at a time like that.
What about email? Nah. It’s about some specific code, maybe I should ask on Github.
It’s complicated. How can I explain this as directly as possible? I can post a comment right on the helper method…
...but is the problem really in the helper or is it because of the collection set in the controller? It’s definitely in the controller, let’s start there. Wait a second…!
It’s usually at this point that I either figure out the answer for myself or come up with a new way of considering the problem, never having to even ask the original question. I didn’t bother my co-worker, I didn’t look like an idiot trying to articulate the question on-the-fly, and most importantly I figured out the answer!

People who struggle to work remotely often bemoan the lack of in-person collaboration jumping from this tool to that tech in an effort to recreate the magic that only happens when we’re all in the same room. There are definitely advantages to face time, but too often it seems like facial expressions and waving arms are substituted for clear thought and courtesy.

The next time you have a question for a coworker, try writing it out as if they were 1000 miles and 3 time zones away – even if they’re sitting right next to you. You might surprise yourself with the answer.

What have you been reading lately?

David wrote this on 46 comments

About once a month we start an internal discussion on Basecamp about what people have been reading lately. It’s a great way to get suggestions for good books. So why not try to see how it’d work on this blog. Here are five of the best books I’ve read in the last few months:

  • The Intelligent Investor: Benjamin Graham’s immortal tome on value investing cuts right through the bullshit of the short-term stock market swings and valuation bubbles. He draws on examples from the stock market from the late 1800s until 1970s. The latest edition then contains chapter commentary with examples from the 2000s. It’s amazing how little has changed. As Graham says, “in the short term, the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine”. If you read just one book on the market or investing, make it this one.
  • The New Jim Crow: Heart-breaking account of how the American justice system has been perverted through the War on Drugs to lock up utterly disproportionate number of blacks and other minorities. It then details the hopeless life that awaits those who are branded felons for the rest of their life by excluding them from public assistance, jobs, and housing. The book is full of real-life case stories that should make even the most ardent drug warrior’s stomach in disgust. Quick read too and great writing.
  • Riding Man: Ad man decides to quit his job to follow his dream of racing the Isle of Man TT. Great story telling, great example of how it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
  • Why Nations Fail: A thorough look through history describing why some nations rise to prosperity and others linger in poverty. It’s a little slow to get going, but once you get rolling it’s hard to put it down.
  • Insanely Simple: Yes, there’s enough Steve Jobs hero worship tomes to last anyone a lifetime, but this one is full of specific examples that you can use in your own business. Written by an ad man who worked with Jobs on a number of projects.

What have you been reading lately?

Writing tip: say the opposite

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 10 comments

Here’s a great bit of advice from Jakob Nielsen’s 2001 post about writing company taglines:

…look at how you present the company in the main copy on the home page. Rewrite the text to say exactly the opposite. Would any company ever say that? If not, you’re not saying much with your copy, either.

Great copy doesn’t remind people what they already know and expect about your product, it tells them why they should care.

Zingerman's simple email survey

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 22 comments

Last week I wrote about Audi’s customer satisfaction survey. The numbers and words just didn’t mesh. And there were dozens of questions – many of which were difficult to rate according to their given scale. I didn’t end up filling it out and deleted it from my inbox.

This week I got another survey from another company. This one was from Zingerman’s – the famous Ann Arbor-based deli. I’d recently purchased some olive oil, vinegar, and mustard from their site.

Here’s the email they sent:

That’s a fantastic email. Short, friendly, clearly written by someone who understands tone, brand, and how to get feedback that’s useful. No tricks. Yes, it’s automated, and signed by a team, but that’s fine. It was originally written by someone who cares. It’s consistent with Zingerman’s casual catalog voice, too.

They have a 0-10 scale just like Audi. Except they only have one question. “How likely are you to recommend Zingermans?” That question sums up just about everything. They consider 0 “not a chance” and 10 “in a heartbeat”. The rest is up to you.

And they don’t ask you to click over to a web-based survey somewhere. They just say, hey, reply to this email with a number and, if you have time, let us know why you gave us this rating. Your reply is your answer, that’s it. There’s nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. Easy.

Then they say: “We are a small crew in the service center, we read every word and we try to do better all the time.” That alone makes me want to give them feedback. I know I’ll be heard. I believe I’ll be heard. The Audi survey? It feels like it’s going straight into a database. I’m an aggregate stat, not a person, not a customer.

It would be easy to say that Audi’s survey will give Audi more detailed feedback. More data points attached to specific experiences. And it would be easy to say that Zingerman’s question is too broad, too difficult to act on a “7” with no other information.

But I’d wager that Zingerman’s gets more useful feedback than Audi gets. That one question – answered simply with a reply to an email – probably leads to more valuable, subtle feedback than the dozen-question, extremely detailed , slippery Audi survey.

The Zingerman’s survey feels like it’s written by someone who’s curious about the answer. The Audi survey feels like it’s written by someone who’s collecting statistics. Which company do you think really cares more?

When numbers and words don't add up

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 30 comments

I recently purchased a new car. A few days later I got an email from Audi asking me to rate my experience. I clicked the link to the survey and ended up seeing this:

Ok, this should be easy.

“Ease of looking at dealer’s inventory” – great, no problems there. A 10, right? Well… was it OUTSTANDING? How about TRULY EXCEPTIONAL? No, it wasn’t those… I can’t say someone’s inventory was truly exceptional. I can’t put my name on that sort of endorsement. So…?

Comfort in the office where we cut the deal? It was fine – I couldn’t imagine it to be better, but was it TRULY EXCEPTIONAL? No. That doesn’t fit. So does that make it a 6 or 7? No, it was better than that… But… So…?

I see this sort of thing in surveys all the time. A simple 1-10 scale (or 1-5, it doesn’t matter), but the labeling of the numbers is so sensationalized that it turns me off. As far as the number goes, I’m happy to give something the highest rating, but the language overshoots the number and then I don’t know how to respond.

I find these sorts of things great reminders of how important it is to choose the right words. Don’t overshoot, don’t sensationalize. Be modest with language. Find the right fit and leave it alone.

Read this: Revising Prose

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 4 comments

There are plenty of books that will teach you to be a better writer, but I’ve never found one so immediately useful as Revising Prose by Richard A. Lanham. Following along as Lanham revises example upon example of real world writing is like exercise for your writing muscles.

My favorite takeaway is this tip for improving the rhythm and cadence of your writing. Many of us have learned to read text out loud as a method to reveal awkward transitions or generally dull passages, but you can also spot poor rhythm visually. A red flag for dull cadence is a run of sentences that are all of similar length. Try adding a carriage return after every sentence or phrase, the rhythm is evident:

Diagramming sentence length: dull vs. dynamic

While other books have increased my knowledge of writing, Revising Prose changed the way I write and how I think about writing. Buy a copy at Amazon.

A case for clarity in feedback

Mig Reyes
Mig Reyes wrote this on 10 comments

As an ad-agency refugee, I’ve struggled with my fair share of design debates with copywriters, project managers, clients, and everyone in between.

Maybe you’ve been there, too. The copywriter you’re paired with doesn’t think the marketing page you’re working on “feels right yet.” (As it turns out, the tone of voice is just off.)
In dramatic fashion, your client thinks the design you just presented is “way off base.” (You just happened to use a color they absolutely detest.)
It’s been five years since I’ve had a client meeting, yet the road blocks of vague feedback still come back to haunt me within the programmer to designer relationship.
The other day, Nick and I were debating the look and feel of shared code snippets. Or, so I thought…


On Poetry & Programming

Kristin wrote this on 23 comments

I’m a poet, lover of literature, and budding Ruby student. Even as a lover of language, I never thought to explore computer language as a way to enhance my knowledge and appreciation… until I started working here. In writing code, you face similar obstructions as you do in poetry: context, line breaks, stanzas, even word-choice.

As I revise and revise a program I’ve been working on, I realize how the content of the program dictates the form, just like in poetry. A stanza and a block of code are both rooms within the larger piece. Indentation can be used as a way to signal a change (in tone, movement, concept) to the reader in both a poem and a program.

Look at these screenshots: one is part of a Ruby program and one is a contemporary poem. It’s hard to tell the difference!

I think it’s possible to compare the arc of a program to the dramatic structure of a piece of literature, like Freytag’s triangle. (Although, that’s another post entirely…)

How else do you see form across languages and genres?

Rekindle my love of reading

David wrote this on 71 comments

When the iPad first came out, I somehow convinced myself that the Kindle was dead. Apple had managed to create something where you could not only read books, but also do everything else. Why on earth would anyone still cling to a single-purpose device like the Kindle? Surely this would be like carrying an iPod in one pocket and an iPhone in the other — pointless!

Ha! What really happened, of course, was much more subtle. Instead of killing the Kindle, the iPad just killed my desire to read books. From the time I got the first iPad until I rediscovered the Kindle this Christmas, I don’t think I finished a single book.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the technology story template of “Kindle killer”. A new product is usually always, and lazily, described in not so much what it does, but what it KILLS! If it bleeds, it leads.

Thankfully that delusion has now worn off and I’m back in love with e-ink and have finished four books since Christmas.

I still don’t understand why I can read blogs, news, and code on a screen all day with nary a complaint, but I can’t finish a book on the iPad. But I’m not going to argue, I’m just glad that I’m reading books again.