The Value of Writing Well

It’s that time of year again. No, not “the holiday season”. I mean, it is holiday time, but for professors it doesn’t start feeling like holiday time until final grades are in and the books are closed on another semester. No, for me, it’s paper-grading time, the time of year when I’m reminded over and over of the importance of good writing skills – and of their rarity.

The ability to write well is not a gift. Sure, the special something that sets apart a Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Salman Rushdie or Isabel Allende is a gift, a talent born of disposition, experience, and commitment. But just to be able to communicate clearly with the written word takes no special talent; it’s a skill like any other.

Well, not exactly like any other. Because the words we use to write with are the same words we use to think with, learning to write well has ramifications that go beyond the merely technical. As we improve our writing ability, we improve our ability to think – to build an argument, to frame issues in compelling ways, to weave apparently unrelated facts into a coherent whole.

And despite the recurring hand-wringing and chest-beating about the “end of literacy” and the “death of the printed word”, the reality is that we write more than ever these days. While it’s a rare person who sits down with pen and paper in hand and writes a letter to a friend or loved one, we pour emails into the ether at an astounding rate. We text message, tweet, instant message, blog, comment, and otherwise shoot words at each other in a near-constant flow of communication. We annotate group portraits, LOL-ify cat pictures, and tag… well, everything. At work, we write letters, proposals, PowerPoint presentations, business requirement documents, memos, speeches, mission statements, position papers, operating procedures, manuals, brochures, package copy, press releases, and dozens of more specialized types of documents.

We are, it seems, writing creatures. Homo scribus, if you will.

It’s no wonder that businesses repeatedly cite “communication skills” as the single most desirable trait in new employees. The kicker, though, is that we are as a society incredibly bad at writing. Public schools do a piss-poor job of teaching students how to write well – they barely manage to instill the basic rules of grammar and the miserable 5-paragraph essay, let alone how to write with style and verve, how to put together an argument that moves steadily from one point to the next to persuade a reader of some crucial point, how to synthesize ideas and data from multiple sources into something that takes those ideas one step further.

It’s not just the teachers’ fault. Teachers do the best they can with what they’re given, and all too often what they’re given is inadequate resources with which to teach classrooms full of unmotivated students who could care less about writing. Add to that the requirements of mandatory nation-wide tests that reward conformity, not creativity, and the threat of punishment for any school whose students fail to fall within the fairly rigid boundaries of the test’s requirements, and you’ve got a pretty bad situation all around for instilling in students the power to write well.

That is, alas, a great disservice. Being able to write well vastly improves students’ – and others’ – potential for success, regardless of the field they find themselves in. As I’ve already mentioned, people who write well tend to be better able to think through problems and tease out patterns in outwardly dissimilar situations. More importantly, people who write well have the opportunity to make a mark in the world, because their best ideas aren’t trapped in their own minds for lack of a means of expression.

This is true whether you’re a CEO or a janitor, a marketing expert or an Emergency Medical Technician. The skills that make us better writers make us better explainers, better persuaders, and better thinkers. They are the skills that allow us to “sell” our ideas effectively, whether in giving a presentation to potential funders of our company, proposing a new project to our corporate leadership, or transmitting a new policy to our employees. Being able to write well lessens the chance that we’ll be misunderstood, and increases the likelihood that our ideas will be adopted.

Writing well is not a gift reserved for the few but a set of skills that can be learned by anyone. The technical aspects can be learned in any of several ways: by taking a class, by studying books on writing, by working with a partner or a group and acting on their feedback. But while grammar and structure are an important part of writing, to write well also demands some effort to develop style. Style is what keeps people reading past the first sentence, and what keeps what you’ve written on their minds, impelling them to take action.

Style is rather less teachable than the nuts and bolts of writing, but it is learnable. It demands patience, attention, and most of all practice, but it is possible for anyone who has something to say to learn how to say it well. To move from being merely capable to being a good writer, you need only:

  1. Read: Reading is essential to good writing. It is how we learn the vastness of the language and the limits of the grammar – and how to push those limits. The more you read, the greater your understanding of language’s potential becomes.
  2. Write: Good writing takes practice. Unfortunately, unless we create opportunities to write, we get far too few opportunities to get that practice after we’ve left school. Start a journal, a blog, a newsletter, or whatever else you can think of to get you writing on at least a semi-regular basis.
  3. Read Again: Most people who fail to become better writers fail because they do not read their own writing. They don’t read it before they post/mail/submit/publish/otherwise finish it, and they don’t read it after they’re done with it. Which means they don’t see the awkward parts, the flat bits, the pieces that say something different from what was intended – and they never learn how to fix or, better yet, avoid those problems.
  4. Repeat: Writing is personal, and seeing your writing ill-received can strike a blow to the strongest of egos. The only answer for it, though, is persistence – the goal is to become a better writer, not to be perfect out of the gate. Pay attention to criticism, learn from it, but don’t internalize it – there’s no shame in writing poorly, only in failing to try to do better next time.

Today’s world is a world of text; it is the lifeblood of the information economy. In Ancient Rome, it was the orators who ruled, those who could compel obedience, loyalty, and devotion with their spoken words. Today, the written word is dominant, not only because so much of the information that shapes our lives is written down, but because the habits that make us good writers are the same habits that allow us to flourish in the information economy. If you worry about your writing ability, commit yourself now to becoming a solid writer in the year to come. If you are already a decent writer, commit yourself to becoming better. And if you’re one of the rare few who write well, reach out to those around you and share your talent, so that others may learn from you. Let that be your gift this holiday season.

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