Howard Marks on Writing Clear Memos

Paul Graham on What Makes an Essay the Best
5. General

Howard Marks on Writing Clear Memos

Welcome to the fifty-sixth edition of ‘3-2-1 by Story Rules‘.

A newsletter recommending good examples of storytelling across:

• 3 tweets
• 2 articles, and
• 1 long-form content piece

Let’s dive in.

𝕏 3 Tweets of the week

Striking chart on the acute polarisation of American districts.

Insightful. Some of the best takes on current culture come from stand-up comics and cartoonists, not from journalists and political commentators.

That is some brutal satire by Karthik on Zomato’s decision to introduce a green-uniform wearing ‘Pure Veg Fleet’. The decision has been rolled back subsequently.

📄 2 Articles of the week

a. ‘Why women hate their bodies’ by Mahima Vashisht

Mahima is one of India’s most engaging writers on gender-issues. In this edition of her newsletter, she writes with searing honesty about self-body-shaming by women.

(Let’s face it, men don’t really beat themselves up on their appearance as much as women)

Writing about this, Mahima is at her most open and vulnerable:

A few weeks in, my classmates started a weight loss contest.

I was easily the heaviest in the class, but no one had noticed that I was also the only one who had never self-fat-shamed yet. So it was automatically assumed that I was going to join the contest. Until I gently declined to join the WhatsApp group they were creating for their daily weight updates.

I told them I was happy as long as the class helped me get fitter and healthier, and that obsessing over my weight was unhealthy for me.

Horrified looks were exchanged, and then everyone spoke at once.

“Of course, we are also talking about fitness here!”

“Yes yes, that is what this is about!”

“Losing weight is the same thing as getting healthy!”

Not wanting to start an argument, I just smiled and shook my head in a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ as the next song began.

I could feel suspicious eyes boring into my back as we all started following the steps to Gasolina.

As always she shares stories from other women – this one in particular was striking:

Ada recollected an experience she had at a friend’s wedding recently.

“On her wedding day, she came out in her exquisite Sabyasachi lehenga with makeup done by a celebrity artist. She was the most stunning bride I had ever seen. It was an emotional moment for her – she was minutes away from becoming a married woman. In this pivotal moment, just as we started clicking bridesmaids photos, she quickly reminded all of us to click all the pictures for our Instagram stories in ‘her filter’. Yes, she has a filter that is ‘her filter’ because she believes it makes her look fairest and hides her blemishes best. Amid all emotion and commotion, she never forgot to shout “in that filter” everytime she heard a camera click. I never discussed it with her but it broke my heart to imagine how many times society must have reminded her of her flaws for her to be this obsessed”

Mahima ends with a set of rousing recommendations that should be read and followed by all:

– We are not supposed to ‘fit into’ any clothes. Clothes are supposed to fit us.

– Thin is not necessarily equal to healthy, and fat is not necessarily equal to unhealthy.

– We need to eat healthy and exercise because we love our bodies. Not because we hate them.

– Unfollow anyone on the internet who does not make you feel love for yourself. And follow only the pages that do.

– Ban criticizing yourself or anyone else based on their appearance in your home, especially around children.

– Appreciate or chide yourself and your kids for choices, not genetic lotteries

Incidentally, ICYMI, you should listen to my podcast conversation with Mahima – it’s a fascinating one.

b. ‘Leg Piece’ by Maanav

This beautiful, evocative piece was shared by one of the members in the Clear Writing Community WhatsApp group.

It’s a simple personal story told with much warmth and humour.

I loved the use of contrast here – see the build-up when Maanav is describing his sister, and then the contrasting twist… especially that 4-word last line:

My sister was the first-born, and naturally, everyone’s favourite. She was spoiled by all – her birthday celebrated each month with a pastry, every song re-written to feature her at its centre. She enjoyed her uncontested dominion over the family empire. Until I came along. When I was born, they carefully put me in her arms and asked what she thought of her little brother. “Achha hai…till when is he staying with us?” – “Forever”, Mom replied, as the rest of the family laughed at her adorable question. My sister saw no humour in this.

As deeply loved as my sister was, I was the younger child and only son of our Punjabi-Delhi home. That’s hard to top.

Superb use of mystery – Maanav starts with the ‘second quickest way’ first, making you wonder, ‘Huh, what’s the quickest way then?’

The second quickest way for someone to learn patience and adjustment is by having a child. The quickest is having two together.

This is a lovely example of using a concrete, relatable example to share an abstract idea:

It’s a real joy to be able to spoil your children, to discover that they will always have dibs on anything they see you eating, to accept that they will destroy all the hard work that went into perfecting your Spotify algorithm.

Also, notice the parsimony of words. Maanav does not use one word more than needed.

I look forward to reading more of Maanav’s work.

🎧 1 long-form listen of the week

a. Howard Marks on the ‘How I Write’ podcast with David Perell (YouTube link, also available on podcast apps)

Billionaire investor Howard Marks is known for his clear memos and books on investing. Warren Buffett has said that, “When I see memos from Howard Marks in my mail, they’re the first thing I open and read. I always learn something, and that goes double for his book.”

In this conversation with David Perell, there are some useful lessons for students of writing (and life!).

I loved the four levels of intelligence (attributed to Einstein):

I get a lot of responses nowadays. My favorite one, well, there’s two. One says, “You changed my life because I now think this or that way.” And the other one is, “You make complex things simple.” The most flattering one I ever got, I’m not sure about the comparison, (the person) said that Einstein said there are four levels of intelligence – bright, brilliant, genius, and simple. The inference is that my writing is simple, and that makes me very happy.

As storytellers, it is important to be able to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas:

I write when I have an idea, and usually it’s a matter of gleaning, and I think a lot of it is serendipity. You come across this, then you come across this. Now, the way my mind works, I make connections. So I tend to make connections among ostensibly unconnected things which produce inspirations. So I might read an article here and cut it out, then an article from another source on a somewhat different topic that I think is connected and put it on a pile, and then an article from here and a video from here, and that thought from here, which I write down and put it on the pile. And when the pile is substantial in terms of content, not height, I might write a memo.

Marks talks about the importance of reflection and the use of pen and paper:

I really start with a pile of scraps of paper. I mean, I have a list of topics, a list of thoughts. I don’t have what you would call an outline, Roman I, this A, B, C, Roman II, blah, blah, blah. I just have a bunch of ideas. They start off on piles of paper. They come up here. Usually what happens is I think about it for a long time. And then having thought about it and come to some ideas about organization, I just write them down.

Edit your work, but be aware of the law of diminishing returns:

I love the editing part. You do a rapid first draft, you think it’s good, then you read it over again and you make changes. You move a couple of paragraphs around, you connect a couple sentences with a connector. I might do that about five times, let’s say. Each time it gets a little better, but we have something called the law of diminishing returns. It means the first time you do it, you make it 20% better. The second time you do it, you make it 10% better than that. And the third time, five, and two, and then one, and then you can’t really make it any better.

Analogies are a great storytelling tool:

One of the reasons that I got into Wharton when the odds were against was that I had high SATs, and one of the things I did best in the SATs was the section called analogies. I’ve always been good at analogies, and I see connections. Every decade I’ve written a memo about the connections between sports and investing, and in most decades, one about the connection between gambling and investing. Just writing a memo about investing, not too interesting. A memo about the connection between poker or backgammon and investing I think can be quite interesting. So if you go through life, as I naturally do, seeing a lot of things in natural intellectual curiosity and thinking how they relate to your prime subject was investing, I think you can get some interesting stuff.

On analogies, Marks admires Warren Buffett’s ability to use pithy, visually-evocative metaphors to convey ideas:

I admire and strive to emulate his (Buffett’s) turn of phrase, things like, back in ’09, when the wheels were coming off the economy and the financial sector in the global financial crisis, I think that’s when he said it for the first time, he said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that we find out who’s been swimming naked.” What a great image. In other words, this goes back to the luck thing, there are lots of people who appear to have been skillful, but until they’re tested by adverse circumstances, we don’t know if was really skill or just a bunch of good luck. But look how many words it takes me to say that, and he said it in 15.

That’s all from this week’s edition.

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

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