In a world awash with content—e-mails, texts, blogs, printed publications, e-books, newsfeeds, tweets, etc.—it becomes easy to ignore the importance of good writing. It becomes easy to believe that, in a world of too much information and too little time, readers won’t notice or care about or remember flaws in your writing. But you’d be wrong.
When the content is relevant, people do take time to read carefully.
Obviously, no one is reading everything. Most people are reading only content that holds some relevance for them—whether that relevance relates to a job, a particular sense of humor, a hobby, a mystery medical condition, parenting challenges, etc. And the more relevant the content, the more carefully the reader tends to read.
The relevant reader is an important reader—a reader whose attention and respect you want to capture. (You want her business. You want to influence her opinions and actions. You want your knowledge to become her knowledge. You want her to see things as clearly as you see things. You want to inform her.) When your writing is lazy—when it lacks clarity and organization or when it’s peppered with language gaffes and inconsistencies—the careful, relevant, important reader notices.
The reader either notices the obvious writing flaws and judges the writer’s credibility based on those errors, or the reader notices that she’s frustrated—that she’s been left hanging by writing that has failed to inform her adequately. She notices that the writer has not presented information in a clear and easily understandable way. She notices that the writer has created more questions than he has answered. She notices that the writer has left her confused instead of informed.
Make the careful reader (not the casual glance-and-skim reader) your least common denominator. Write for her. She’s relevant, and she’s important.
Reading carefully remains a central part of many jobs.
“Reading is fun,” our teachers told us in elementary school. They were mostly right. It can be fun. It often is fun. But reading can be work, too. In scads of jobs today, reading (sorting through information) still lies at the center of tasks—such as researching patent claims, preparing lawsuits, administering contracts, and studying markets and consumer trends. Clear, thoughtful writing, therefore, remains important—even when the writing task at hand seems not so significant, because you never know who might take an interest in your content.
What you write might carry greater significance for your reader than you realize. What you write for one audience might very well get picked up and used by another audience. What you write might get blended with other pieces of information by a reader as part of a broader analysis. Once again, don’t undervalue the importance of careful, thoughtful, clear writing. If your writing is vague and sloppy, you’re doing the “working reader” no service. He’s likely to dismiss or refuse your content quickly, without wading through it to determine its ultimate relevance. Or if he does, for lack of better sources, decide to use your sloppy content (in a report, as part of a decision-making process, in a citation), he’s likely to pass along any flaws and errors it contains. So poorly written information can contaminate the work of others.
Write well, because everything you write might live forever.
Libraries are filled with books that come to life only when they are opened. The same concept holds true these days for virtually all written content, not just bound books arranged neatly on a shelf. All of our writings—from embarrassing tweets to “that report that no one cared about”—can resurface after lying dormant for years.
So much of what we write today lives in near perpetuity in our e-mail folders, in the e-mail inboxes of friends and co-workers, in Web archives, on common work networks, in scanned images of paper content, on thumb drives, in hidden caches, on CDs, in “the cloud,” on servers whose existence we’re not even aware of. What you write these days sticks around. It does not die easily—unless you used a pen, a pencil, a crayon, or a typewriter to create it.
That just-for-kicks blog you started in 2000 and then abandoned after a few weeks probably still exists on a server. Every ranting note you’ve posted on Facebook is still there, waiting to be rediscovered by friends. Our writings can be recalled and revived decades down the road, whether for research purposes, analyses, or general curiosity. What you write, therefore, becomes part of a permanent record. And writing accurately and clearly becomes all the more important. What’s clear today, in the context of current events, might not read so clearly a decade from now.
So write like it matters. Write as if what you’re writing will live forever, because it probably will. Write with the context of time in mind, giving thought to details and specifics and avoiding shortcuts and lazy writing that presumes too much of the reader. (Example: A current, local reader might get your reference to “that big event that happened last week,” but some future reader might benefit if instead you wrote “the Second Annual Podunk Pie-Eating Contest and Demolition Derby.”)
The things you have written are getting easier for readers to find.
New and emerging tools can help us sort through the mounds of content that are being produced today. Forgotten or hard-to-find content suddenly becomes rediscovered content as search technologies, sharing tools, data-mining tools, content-aggregation applications, and other applications grow more sophisticated and more prominent. Just look to Facebook for one example. The site recently added search features that let users dig up old content fast, rather than having to click and browse their way to it. Or consider the Summly app recently acquired by Yahoo! The app uses natural-language-processing algorithms and artificial intelligence to convert written news into shorter summaries, helping readers “read faster” and tap in to more content sources. Such new tools are helping readers find relevant but easily forgotten or overlooked content in the dark corners of our digital world.
Beyond new tools, there’s the multiplier effect. These days, your content can be reblogged, retweeted, shared, reshared, forwarded, liked, linked, upvoted, pinned, posted, and reposted. Your tweets can be highlighted on high-traffic websites or featured on air during televised sporting events, news events, and reality-show competitions. What you might have expected only a handful of twitter followers to see suddenly gets seen by a few hundred thousand TV viewers, many of whom decide to follow you on twitter and many of whom navigate their way to other content you have written. So you should make sure you’re writing well.
And don’t underestimate the power of curiosity. Readers seek new content. They seek new voices and new sources of information. When they stumble upon what you’ve written, they don’t always stop exploring. That blog post you wrote four years ago (you know, the really awesome one that got absolutely no views) still stands to be discovered by new readers who are drawn to your fresh content—and who continue to poke around your blog, checking out your old but still relevant content.
Even the smallest of writing tasks, like a text or a tweet, often needs to convey important information.
Organizations continue to turn to text alerts and social media to communicate with citizens, customers, employees, and partners. Unfortunately, many of those organizations have overlooked the need to write clearly when broadcasting messages via text or social media.
Yes, character limits of some media can present a challenge. (And the cumbersome keypads on many mobile devices also don’t help us write as fluidly as we would like.) And yes, these media have long been steeped in chatty, casual, familiar communication—peppered with shorthand and abbreviations. But text and social-media messages don’t have to be casual, chatty, and riddled with shorthand and abbreviations, you know. They can still be short, crisp, clear, quick-to-comprehend, useful, and meaningful. Don’t expect the writing task to be easy, though. Good writing is rarely “easy.”
Important information deserves clear writing, whether in a tome or in a text message.
Also keep in mind that, in many instances, texts and social-media communications end up being one-way broadcasts, not conversations. If the reader and the writer aren’t going to be communicating back and forth, the writer has one chance to get it right—to write clearly and to deliver his central message efficiently.
These same concepts apply to other small writing tasks, too—e-mail messages, memos, scribbled notes. These small notes can bear important information. Writing them well from the get-go avoids unnecessary back-and-forth and confusion, especially when you’re writing for multiple readers (some of whom enjoy using the “reply all” function a bit too much).
Focusing on better writing and editing can make you a better oral communicator, a better problem solver, a better “anticipator” of questions and problems.
Even if you don’t write for a living, your job likely involves some writing tasks. Endeavoring to write better in those tasks will help you sharpen your word tools. It will help you improve your grammar and language skills, and those improvements will spill over into your spoken communications. Endeavoring to write better will make you a better describer of problems and solutions, helping you to become a better thinker. And endeavoring to write better will force you to think like your reader, to ponder questions and to seek answers before others ask those questions—helping to build skills for anticipating concerns and avoiding confusion.
Better communication, better thinking, better planning—these are all skills that grow when you pursue better writing. These skills matter, and they will always matter. Writing well, therefore, will always matter, too.
Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.