7 – Writing Tips

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Summary: Make your YC application writing succinct, concrete, unique/memorable and impressive. And get lots of feedback!

Writing a good YC application is something between a college app, a scientific paper and a really good piece of direct mail. That is to say, you need to talk about yourself and your ideas in a clear and nuanced way, while striving to make the reader impressed and motivated to take action (in this case, invite you for an interview).

Let’s look at the four major writing qualities of the YC app:

Succinct

Write as concisely and clearly as you can, please don’t use big dense blocks of text.

– Harj Taggar – How Should I Fill Out the YC Application Form? (Quora)

This is a throwback to Chapter 1. YC partners are looking through hundreds of applications and you don’t want to waste a single word when they skim through yours.

Try to keep sentences short and avoid convoluted clauses/sentence structure. How would you explain it to a smart friend of yours if you had only 10 minutes.

A great way to keep your writing short is to do a brain dump and write everything you want to say, then go back and cut mercilessly – multiple times. The word limits are a great guideline – it’s ok to go over a little, but those extra few words better be damn good.

Concrete

Don’t use marketing speak e.g. “revolutionizing the world of digital communication via the social web” gets me no closer to understanding what you’re actually doing. Write in plain speak e.g. “a mobile application showing you nearby restaurants your friends recommend”.

– Harj again from the same Quora answer.

Be matter of fact in your writing. Stick to facts, data and solid points that can be backed up with evidence if needed.

Concreteness matters because it increases the chances that the partners will “get it” right away. Remember they will spend about 5 minutes on average reading your application.

If YC rejects you, let it be because they understood what you were proposing and disagreed, rather than because they were just confused by your ramblings.

Include hard numbers when you can. This helps YC partners get a handle on what you’re talking about. Ideally these are numbers generated through your product or through your own research – 3rd party data is better than nothing but much easier to question.

Unique / Memorable

This is a 2nd order objective. You should focus on making sure your app is concise and concrete. Having done that, it would help to make your app unique and memorable. If you can cite surprising stats about your market, interesting stories about your resourcefulness – do it.

You want YC to remember you because if you get an interview, you don’t want to have to start over in explaining the idea, who you are, etc. Ideally, when you walk in they say something like “Oh you’re the ones who XXX.” Try to make that XXX a good one.

Impressive

Realize the question asking about the most impressive things you’ve built or achieved is one of (possibly the) most important question on the form. Don’t answer with “This startup”, “I haven’t achieved anything impressive yet” or use it as an opportunity to show your sense of humour. We’re not looking for resume credentials here, examples of where you were determined to do something and stuck with it – regardless of the outcome – are impressive to us (since so much of what we’re looking for in founders is determination).

– Harj one more time

Always remember that your goal here is to get them impressed with your team, product and ideas. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. You want the YC partners to think:

“Damn, these guys are freaking smart, determined and onto something really interesting/big. We don’t want to miss funding them.”

Often times hackers avoid thinking about impressing other people. This is a mistake. You’ve got to sell it. If there are facts that make you look good, even if they are only anecdotes / single pieces of data, throw them out there!

Other random thoughts

  • The more traction you have and the more legit you are, the less the app matters. This means if you are early stage, it’s worth putting more effort into your app. If you lare later stage, it might better to just try and get as much traffic as possible so you can submit great numbers.
  • You can split up the writing at first, but make sure to go back through and ensure it has a unified voice.
  • Don’t skip on the “interesting things you have learned” question. Additionally, if you have other startup ideas that seem good, do take a minute and put those in there. This is a chance to impress or be memorable in a positive way.
  • Everyone should put in a “what you hacked on” answer even though it only asks for one.

Finally: Get lots and lots of feedback on this app.

You’ve got mentors, right? Get as many trustworthy and intelligent eyeballs on your written application as you can. This goes for any application for anything, really. More eyeballs will always help you flesh out your concepts, spot weak links and strengthen your case.

Ask other people to read your application and ask them if they can honestly understand basic things like what you’re actually building. A lot of things that seem obvious to you, won’t be obvious to someone reading your application for the first time.

Garry Tan – Super last minute advice for startups applying for Y Combinator

If you get in, this will be one of the most important pieces of writing you will have done. Swallow your pride and ask your friends to read it and leave detailed feedback. Mix it up between your techie friends, and ones who just happen to be good writers.

Ask for thoughts on everything – the idea itself, how you frame things, the specific examples/fact you cite, and grammar/punctuation/details.

Revise and try sending it to some of your friends again (if you have time) and try even sending it to new people (so you can get new first impressions)


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