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On Writing as an Important Career Skill

Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, and prolific blogger on why writing is important and how (and why) he uses writing as a hiring filter.

First, in an interview with Chase Jarvis on youtube.

CJ: What are some other really key things that you look for, that you’ve built into your company? Just some of the ones that are maybe more important to you well yeah how do you think about it?

JF: Well a lot of it is the things we don’t want. That’s how we think about it primarily.

… We don’t want to sit in meetings all day, so we don’t have a meetings heavy culture. which means that we write a lot of things down versus say them out loud. So we write write long form and write in detailed passages, so people can absorb everything on their own time versus having a meeting to pull people off their work yeah to sit in a room together, to talk about something that has nothing to do with right now, but you’re having the meeting right now. It’s very inefficient actually, a very inefficient way of doing it, so to do that (work efficiently), to facilitate that we have to hire great writers.

So we don’t hire people who can’t write. Very, very, very, important. That’s actually the probably number one hiring criteria after like, can they do the work? Are they good at the thing? But, the next thing is can they write? And if they can’t write well, we will not hire them.

CJ: So do you do a test? A written communication test?

JF: They do the test for us essentially by submitting coverletters. we look at the cover letter first. We don’t look at the resume, don’t care about previous experience, don’t care about where they went to school, don’t care about any of that stuff. We look at the cover letter, and if they don’t have one, resume gets tossed. Alright, they have to be able to write to us, saying like why they want this job, who they are, what’s important to them why is this was it this job, and not just any job yeah or if it is any job just say that too, but like I want to be able to read it.

And you read the letter and you quickly can tell.
This person can write, this person can communicate, they can express themselves, they’re clear minded, they’re thoughtful, they’re good at nuance, are good at the subtleties that matter, that separate them from somebody else.

They know how to persuade and persuasion is super important in any line of business because you’ve gotta sell, not like sell to a customer always, but selling an idea internally, to your team, whatever it is, right, so, so, so the cover letter is fundamental for us and we’re very very careful about that.
So that’s the writing test it’s not a test, but it is.

And then on a podcast with Tim Ferris

TF: You mentioned, since we’re talking about Warren Buffett, clear thinking and clear writing, which you seem to value very highly. In doing a little bit of homework for this conversation, I’ve read, and you can tell me if this is true or still the case, but how one of your top hiring criteria is whether the person is a great writer. Whether the person can communicate well in written form. I’d love for you to say whether that is still the case or not and why that is the case.

JF: It’s definitely the case. It’s sort of been the case forever for us. It’s the case because first of all, most communication is written these days. First of all, let me step back. We’re a remote company, so especially most communication is written. If you’re going to have, if you’re a local company and you’re having meetings all the time, sometimes verbal is enough. But in most cases, people are writing more and more and more than they ever have before.

One of the most costly and inefficient things is having to repeat yourself, or answer questions about something that should’ve been clear in the first place. If you can’t communicate clearly, you’re communicating probably three or four times more frequently than you need to. That can be really inefficient and really frustrating, extremely frustrating. So, we’ve always looked at clear writing as a prerequisite for every position we have at the company because everybody is supposed to communicate with themselves, with the rest of the company, with their team. Most of it’s done via the written word.

We also, for example – by the way, the first sort of gatekeeper of it is the cover letter. When people apply for a job, if they just send a résumé or whatever, they’re out instantly. It’s not even something we look at. I always want to see a cover letter of some sort. It can just be an email, of course, with an attachment of the résumé or whatever, but I want to see how you open the conversation. How do you describe yourself? Why are you applying for this job and not just any job? You can tell very quickly if someone can explain themselves, if someone can advocate for themselves and advocate for their ideas and their position and who they are and why they should work here.

If they’re clear minded, if they’re friendly, all that stuff comes through in writing. I think if you pay enough attention to the words, you can see a lot of that. Also, for example, when I hire designers, I look at their design, but I look at their writing almost a little bit more. Whenever we hire a designer, when we get down to the last five candidates that we really think could be finalists, we hire them to do a project for us. $1,500 a week and they do a project for us so we can kind of see their actual work. But even more importantly, is we ask them to write up why they did what they did because there’s a lot of great designers out there. But people have to advocate for themselves. I want to see why they did what they did and I want to read their point of view and their line of thinking and how they came up with the solutions.

When I read that, it helps me understand what would it be like to work with that person for real. Are they able to explain why they did what they did? Are they glossing over little details that actually matter? What is it? How do they see their work and how do they write about it? It’s a very important part of the job here at Basecamp. So, yeah, writing’s important in every position. It doesn’t matter what position you’re in, you still have to be a great writer. We typically start by looking at the cover letter. The actual work assignments to get hired here typically involve writing, no matter what the position. I think it’s always proven, in our case, to be a really good indicator of someone’s success here.

Whenever we hire someone, we’re like, I don’t know, the writing wasn’t quite right. It almost always pans out that it turns out that they’re not the right fit for the company, even if their work was great. But they’re just unable to really convince people and persuade people based on a missing bit of – it’s not magic, but I’ll call it that – in the writing. Where you read something and you go, this is great.

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