Two great rules for writing …. and life

I just read novelist Neil Gaiman’s Eight rules of writing. Numbers five and eight are priceless.

5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

I love it! Generalising beyond writing, I would say trust what people have to say about feelings, but be careful with their predictions. Diagnoses sit somewhere in middle. We all know our own feelings, and don’t go wrong there very often, but if a subject is of great interest to us, as for example our company or it’s market might be, then most well meaning attempts to help will fall short because the would be helper has less understanding than we do. We must always be ready for people to call us on our blind spots though.

8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

This I like because self-confidence is an entrepreneur’s greatest asset. That said I don’t think this applies totally to startups, which have to operate within the limits of commercial feasibility. The penultimate sentence is as important as the first though. Honest confidence is extremely powerful. When dishonesty creeps in confidence can quickly become arrogance.

  • nick price

    Good post Nic. Maybe there is even a meta-observation applying #5 to your reaction (feelings) to your interpretation (interpretation). I agree with your reaction that feels like a good observation. An alternative interpretation however, as open to question as yours, is that ‘feelings’ come from a tacit (implicit) understanding of a domain rather than an analytical (explicit) one.

    The act of articulating that tacit knowledge in order for others to share it/believe it/take action upon it is a challenge of translation. It is a powerful ability to be able translate unique insights usefully, i.e. for others, through producing a coherent story (Gaiman), products (entrepreneurs/developers) and funded startups (investors including organisations such as your.) The ‘truth’ or usefulness of that translation being measured by market (readers, customers and funding providers)

  • Thanks for the comment Nick. Totally agree, that difficulty that people have in articulating the source and meaning of feelings is one of the things that makes their prescriptions unreliable. Maybe your point and mine are two sides of the same coin – usefully explaining your feelings is aided both by innate ability to understand yourself and tell a story AND by domain knowledge.

  • nick price

    The feeling-to-interpretation-to-prescription path is an interesting one. Particularly when a business is trying to do something in an area and/or based on an insight without precedent. It brings to mind the idea of the ‘Pivot’.

    A business may venture into an area feeling that there is an opportunity (interpretation) in there but may not have the right prescription (solution). The ability to pivot and create a business with a return being a possible next step (I’ll sett aside (a) business exit or (b) competitor intrusion into the same opportunity space with a different solution for the moment.) I would expect that part of the value that potential investors would bring to the table. Validating the feeling and coaching the prescription.

  • That’s one way of thinking about what we do 🙂

  • alexanderjarvis

    #5 is really good. Being pragmatic, I wonder about product dev though then as part of CDM. This implies “i am not getting the benefit i need’ and ‘here is the feature i think i want to ameliorate it.’ Accepting the former, do you iterate on the later request as the baseline, or form a new set of hypothesis you then iterate around to fit?

  • Definitely focus on the benefit that’s missing. The correlation between features customers say they want and those they use isn’t as high as you’d expect.