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The Value of Writing Well

The Value of Writing Well

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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:

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    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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    Last Updated on December 4, 2020

    How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

    How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

    We all crave constructive feedback. We want to know not just what we’re doing well but also what we could be doing better.

    However, giving and getting constructive feedback isn’t just some feel-good exercise. In the workplace, it’s part and parcel of how companies grow.

    Let’s take a closer look.

    Why Constructive Feedback Is Critical

    A culture of feedback benefits individuals on a team and the team itself. Constructive feedback has the following effects:

    Builds Workers’ Skills

    Think about the last time you made a mistake. Did you come away from it feeling attacked—a key marker of destructive feedback—or did you feel like you learned something new?

    Every time a team member learns something, they become more valuable to the business. The range of tasks they can tackle increases. Over time, they make fewer mistakes, require less supervision, and become more willing to ask for help.

    Boosts Employee Loyalty

    Constructive feedback is a two-way street. Employees want to receive it, but they also want the feedback they give to be taken seriously.

    If employees see their constructive feedback ignored, they may take it to mean they aren’t a valued part of the team. Nine in ten employees say they’d be more likely to stick with a company that takes and acts on their feedback.[1]

    Strengthens Team Bonds

    Without trust, teams cannot function. Constructive feedback builds trust because it shows that the giver of the feedback cares about the success of the recipient.

    However, for constructive feedback to work its magic, both sides have to assume good intentions. Those giving the feedback must genuinely want to help, and those getting it has to assume that the goal is to build them up rather than to tear them down.

    Promotes Mentorship

    There’s nothing wrong with a single round of constructive feedback. But when it really makes a difference is when it’s repeated—continuous, constructive feedback is the bread and butter of mentorship.

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    Be the change you want to see on your team. Give constructive feedback often and authentically, and others will naturally start to see you as a mentor.

    Clearly, constructive feedback is something most teams could use more of. But how do you actually give it?

    How to Give Constructive Feedback

    Giving constructive feedback is tricky. Get it wrong, and your message might fall on deaf ears. Get it really wrong, and you could sow distrust or create tension across the entire team.

    Here are ways to give constructive feedback properly:

    1. Listen First

    Often, what you perceive as a mistake is a decision someone made for a good reason. Listening is the key to effective communication.

    Seek to understand: how did the other person arrive at her choice or action?

    You could say:

    • “Help me understand your thought process.”
    • “What led you to take that step?”
    • “What’s your perspective?”

    2. Lead With a Compliment

    In school, you might have heard it called the “sandwich method”: Before (and ideally, after) giving difficult feedback, share a compliment. That signals to the recipient that you value their work.

    You could say:

    • “Great design. Can we see it with a different font?”
    • “Good thinking. What if we tried this?”

    3. Address the Wider Team

    Sometimes, constructive feedback is best given indirectly. If your comment could benefit others on the team, or if the person whom you’re really speaking to might take it the wrong way, try communicating your feedback in a group setting.

    You could say:

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    • “Let’s think through this together.”
    • “I want everyone to see . . .”

    4. Ask How You Can Help

    When you’re on a team, you’re all in it together. When a mistake happens, you have to realize that everyone—not just the person who made it—has a role in fixing it. Give constructive feedback in a way that recognizes this dynamic.

    You could say:

    • “What can I do to support you?”
    • “How can I make your life easier?
    • “Is there something I could do better?”

    5. Give Examples

    To be useful, constructive feedback needs to be concrete. Illustrate your advice by pointing to an ideal.

    What should the end result look like? Who has the process down pat?

    You could say:

    • “I wanted to show you . . .”
    • “This is what I’d like yours to look like.”
    • “This is a perfect example.”
    • “My ideal is . . .”

    6. Be Empathetic

    Even when there’s trust in a team, mistakes can be embarrassing. Lessons can be hard to swallow. Constructive feedback is more likely to be taken to heart when it’s accompanied by empathy.

    You could say:

    • “I know it’s hard to hear.”
    • “I understand.”
    • “I’m sorry.”

    7. Smile

    Management consultancies like Credera teach that communication is a combination of the content, delivery, and presentation.[2] When giving constructive feedback, make sure your body language is as positive as your message. Your smile is one of your best tools for getting constructive feedback to connect.

    8. Be Grateful

    When you’re frustrated about a mistake, it can be tough to see the silver lining. But you don’t have to look that hard. Every constructive feedback session is a chance for the team to get better and grow closer.

    You could say:

    • “I’m glad you brought this up.”
    • “We all learned an important lesson.”
    • “I love improving as a team.”

    9. Avoid Accusations

    Giving tough feedback without losing your cool is one of the toughest parts of working with others. Great leaders and project managers get upset at the mistake, not the person who made it.[3]

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    You could say:

    • “We all make mistakes.”
    • “I know you did your best.”
    • “I don’t hold it against you.”

    10. Take Responsibility

    More often than not, mistakes are made because of miscommunications Recognize your own role in them.

    Could you have been clearer in your directions? Did you set the other person up for success?

    You could say:

    • “I should have . . .”
    • “Next time, I’ll . . .”

    11. Time it Right

    Constructive feedback shouldn’t catch people off guard. Don’t give it while everyone is packing up to leave work. Don’t interrupt a good lunch conversation.

    If in doubt, ask the person to whom you’re giving feedback to schedule the session themselves. Encourage them to choose a time when they’ll be able to focus on the conversation rather than their next task.

    12. Use Their Name

    When you hear your name, your ears naturally perk up. Use that when giving constructive feedback. Just remember that constructive feedback should be personalized, not personal.

    You could say:

    • “Bob, I wanted to chat through . . .”
    • “Does that make sense, Jesse?”

    13. Suggest, Don’t Order

    When you give constructive feedback, it’s important not to be adversarial. The very act of giving feedback recognizes that the person who made the mistake had a choice—and when the situation comes up again, they’ll be able to choose differently.

    You could say:

    • “Next time, I suggest . . .”
    • “Try it this way.”
    • “Are you on board with that?”

    14. Be Brief

    Even when given empathetically, constructive feedback can be uncomfortable to receive. Get your message across, make sure there are no hard feelings, and move on.

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    One exception? If the feedback isn’t understood, make clear that you have plenty of time for questions. Rushing through what’s clearly an open conversation is disrespectful and discouraging.

    15. Follow Up

    Not all lessons are learned immediately. After giving a member of your team constructive feedback, follow it up with an email. Make sure you’re just as respectful and helpful in your written feedback as you are on your verbal communication.

    You could say:

    • “I wanted to recap . . .”
    • “Thanks for chatting with me about . . .”
    • “Did that make sense?”

    16. Expect Improvement

    Although you should always deliver constructive feedback in a supportive manner, you should also expect to see it implemented. If it’s a long-term issue, set milestones.

    By what date would you like to see what sort of improvement? How will you measure that improvement?

    You could say:

    • “I’d like to see you . . .”
    • “Let’s check back in after . . .”
    • “I’m expecting you to . . .”
    • “Let’s make a dent in that by . . .”

    17. Give Second Chances

    Giving feedback, no matter how constructive, is a waste of time if you don’t provide an opportunity to implement it. Don’t set up a “gotcha” moment, but do tap the recipient of your feedback next time a similar task comes up.

    You could say:

    • “I know you’ll rock it next time.”
    • “I’d love to see you try again.”
    • “Let’s give it another go.”

    Final Thoughts

    Constructive feedback is not an easy nut to crack. If you don’t give it well, then maybe it’s time to get some. Never be afraid to ask.

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    Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

    Reference

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