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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 May 21, 2019

    How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

    How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

    For all our social media bravado, we live in a society where communication is seen less as an art, and more as a perfunctory exercise. We spend so much time with people, yet we struggle with how to meaningfully communicate.

    If you believe you have mastered effective communication, scan the list below and see whether you can see yourself in any of the examples:

    Example 1

    You are uncomfortable with a person’s actions or comments, and rather than telling the individual immediately, you sidestep the issue and attempt to move on as though the offending behavior or comment never happened.

    You move on with the relationship and develop a pattern of not addressing challenging situations. Before long, the person with whom you are in relationship will say or do something that pushes you over the top and predictably, you explode or withdraw completely from the relationship.

    In this example, hard-to-speak truths become never- expressed truths that turn into resentment and anger.

    Example 2

    You communicate from the head and without emotion. While what you communicate makes perfect sense to you, it comes across as cold because it lacks emotion.

    People do not understand what motivates you to say what you say, and without sharing your feelings and emotions, others experience you as rude, cold or aggressive.

    You will know this is a problem if people shy away from you, ignore your contributions in meetings or tell you your words hurt. You can also know you struggle in this area if you find yourself constantly apologizing for things you have said.

    Example 3

    You have an issue with one person, but you communicate your problem to an entirely different person.

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    The person in whom you confide lacks the authority to resolve the matter troubling you, and while you have vented and expressed frustration, the underlying challenge is unresolved.

    Example 4

    You grew up in a family with destructive communication habits and those habits play out in your current relationships.

    Because you have never stopped to ask why you communicate the way you do and whether your communication style still works, you may lack understanding of how your words impact others and how to implement positive change.

    If you find yourself in any of the situations described above, this article is for you.

    Communication can build or decimate worlds and it is important we get it right. Regardless of your professional aspirations or personal goals, you can improve your communication skills if you:

    • Understand your own communication style
    • Tailor your style depending on the needs of the audience
    • Communicate with precision and care
    • Be mindful of your delivery, timing and messenger

    1. Understand Your Communication Style

    To communicate effectively, you must understand the communication legacy passed down from our parents, grandparents or caregivers. Each of us grew up with spoken and unspoken rules about communication.

    In some families, direct communication is practiced and honored. In other families, family members are encouraged to shy away from difficult conversations. Some families appreciate open and frank dialogue and others do not. Other families practice silence about substantive matters, that is, they seldom or rarely broach difficult conversations at all.

    Before you can appreciate the nuance required in communication, it helps to know the familial patterns you grew up with.

    2. Learn Others Communication Styles

    Communicating effectively requires you to take a step back, assess the intended recipient of your communication and think through how the individual prefers to be communicated with. Once you know this, you can tailor your message in a way that increases the likelihood of being heard. This also prevents you from assuming the way you communicate with one group is appropriate or right for all groups or people.

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    If you are unsure how to determine the styles of the groups or persons with whom you are interacting, you can always ask them:

    “How do you prefer to receive information?”

    This approach requires listening, both to what the individuals say as well as what is unspoken. Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson noted that the best communicators are also great listeners.

    To communicate effectively from relationship to relationship and situation to situation, you must understand the communication needs of others.

    3. Exercise Precision and Care

    A recent engagement underscored for me the importance of exercising care when communicating.

    On a recent trip to Ohio, I decided to meet up with an old friend to go for a walk. As we strolled through the soccer park, my friend gently announced that he had something to talk about, he was upset with me. His introduction to the problem allowed me to mentally shift gears and prepare for the conversation.

    Shortly after introducing the shift in conversation, my friend asked me why I didn’t invite him to the launch party for my business. He lives in Ohio and I live in the D.C. area.

    I explained that the event snuck up on me, and I only started planning the invite list three weeks before the event. Due to the last-minute nature of the gathering, I opted to invite people in the DMV area versus my friends from outside the area – I didn’t want to be disrespectful by asking them to travel on such short notice.

    I also noted that I didn’t want to be disappointed if he and others declined to come to the event. So I played it safe in terms of inviting people who were local.

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    In the moment, I felt the conversation went very well. I also checked in with my friend a few days after our walk, affirmed my appreciation for his willingness to communicate his upset and our ability to work through it.

    The way this conversation unfolded exemplified effective communication. My friend approached me with grace and vulnerability. He approached me with a level of curiosity that didn’t put me on my heels — I was able to really listen to what he was saying, apologize for how my decision impacted him and vow that going forward, I would always ask rather than making decisions for him and others.

    Our relationship is intact, and I now have information that will help me become a better friend to him and others.

    4. Be Mindful of Delivery, Timing and Messenger

    Communicating effectively also requires thinking through the delivery of the message one intends to communicate as well as the appropriate time for the discussion.

    In an Entrepreneur.com column, VIP Contributor Deep Patel, noted that persons interested in communicating well need to master the art of timing. Patel noted,[1]

    “Great comedians, like all great communicators, are able to feel out their audience to determine when to move on to a new topic or when to reiterate an idea.”

    Communicating effectively also requires thoughtfulness about the messenger. A person prone to dramatic, angry outbursts should never be called upon to deliver constructive feedback, especially to people whom they do not know. The immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is not the ideal time to talk about the importance of the Second Amendment rights.

    Like everyone else, I must work to ensure my communication is layered with precision and care.

    It requires precision because words must be carefully tailored to the person with whom you are speaking.

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    It requires intentionality because before one communicates, one should think about the audience and what the audience needs in order to hear your message the way you intended it to be communicated.

    It requires active listening which is about hearing verbal and nonverbal messages.

    Even though we may be right in what we say, how we say it could derail the impact of the message and the other parties’ ability to hear the message.

    Communicating with care is also about saying things that the people in our life need to hear and doing so with love.

    The Bottom Line

    When I left the meeting with my dear friend, I wondered if I was replicating or modeling this level of openness and transparency in the rest of my relationships.

    I was intrigued and appreciative. He’d clearly thought about what he wanted to say to me, picked the appropriate time to share his feedback and then delivered it with care. He hit the ball out of the park and I’m hopeful we all do the same.

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    Featured photo credit: Kenan Buhic via unsplash.com

    Reference

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