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Word Perfect: Learning to write well

In our technology-driven world, the importance of crafting a good sentence has faded away, right? Nope – not even close

May 1, 2014

by Alberta Venture Staff


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You know the saying about not being able to teach old dogs new tricks? Well, if Gary Ross is right, companies might want to focus their attention on teaching the ones they employ an old one instead: writing. The veteran magazine editor and author has found a growing audience for this message, and it’s no wonder. As a 2011 MetLife survey highlighted, for all the attention paid to the importance of math, science and technical skills, it turns out that writing and communicating are far more important to executives at America’s biggest companies. Indeed, fully 97 per cent of the ones surveyed said strong writing skills were “absolutely essential” or “very important.”

“Turn off Facebook, Twitter and all of that and just write.” – Gary Ross

Few think they’re more important than Kyle Wiens, the CEO of a U.S. tech company called iFixit. As he wrote in a 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review, “Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing – like stocking shelves or labelling parts.”

But most companies don’t take grammar, writing skills and other forms of communication as seriously as Wiens. And according to Ross, even the ones that do aren’t really doing anything to cultivate those skills. “Everybody in an organization, whatever their role or their title, is a communicator – but nobody’s being taught how to communicate. I can’t name a company that invests in communication the way they invest in other things like IT, online education, health and safety, sales training or leadership development.”

Of course, this begs a question – can writing actually be taught? Ross thinks so, and cites David Ogilvy, a legendary ad executive and one of the original “Mad Men,” in support. “David, in 1982, sent out a memo to everybody at his ad agency. The memo read ‘The better you write, the higher you’ll go in Ogilvy and Mather. People who think well, write well. Woolly-minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.’ And he concludes by saying ‘Good writing is not a natural gift; you have to learn to write well.’ ”

So where do you start, and how do you do it? Ross has a few ideas.

1. Be Prepared

Turn everything except your brain and the computer off. That’s because while you might think you’re an ace multi-tasker, the science behind it suggests you’re not. “Clifford Nass [the Stanford professor who died in 2013] will be remembered for having demonstrated conclusively that people who multi-task think they are being more productive and efficient than people who don’t, and they are wrong,” Ross says. “You become more efficient when you focus, so rule number one is that if you have anything of consequence to write, turn off Facebook, Twitter and all of that and just write.”

2. Be Deliberate

Writing’s a bit like driving a car – to get to your destination, you have to know how you’re going to get there. That means planning the route before you step on the gas. “You articulate what you’re trying to achieve. If you do that, half the time you don’t bother writing the memo because you realize it’s not needed.”

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Likewise, when you’re in the act of ­writing, be aware of what you’re doing. “Most people write the way they breathe – you breathe whether you think about it or not,” Ross says. “But an opera singer or a free diver breathes with awareness, and you can write with awareness – you can become aware of what you’re doing.”

3. Be Concise

George Orwell said it almost 70 years ago, and Ross says it holds true: if it’s possible to cut a word, cut it. “Every time you boil 500 words down to 300, you stand a better chance of getting your note read, comprehended and responded to.”

That brevity is particularly important today, when 60 per cent of digital communication is read on a hand-held device. “If you’re not saying right off the top what you want or what you’re offering, you stand a chance of not getting read,” he says.

The good news is that you’re already getting plenty of practice, whether you realize it or not. That’s because the most popular forms of communication – texting, Twitter and other forms of social media – already encourage (or in some cases, enforce) brevity. “Texting and all of that is really changing how we communicate,” Ross says. “I think it’s interesting how succinct you can get in a text, and the kind of discipline that Twitter imposes on you. I think there are valuable lessons to be learned about being concise and upfront and plain-spoken.”

4. Be Collaborative

This is probably the hardest part, but it’s also the most important. To get better at writing, Ross says, you have to be willing to subject yourself to scrutiny and criticism. “There’s a vulnerability,” he says. “When you write, you reveal a great deal about yourself, about your personality, your character, your attention to detail. That vulnerability is what you have to get past to improve how you communicate.”

But, he says, that willingness to seek out feedback is something that applies to all writers, no matter how skilled or accomplished they might be. “I have edited the work of people who have won every award you can think of, up to and including the Nobel Prize and the Giller and the Governor General’s award, and what they have in common is they not only welcome editing but they seek it out. None of them think, ‘It’s done, and that’s it.’

That’s why, he says, everyone needs to embrace the fact that self-improvement is an ongoing process – for everyone. “Tiger Woods is one of the best golfers who’s ever lived, so why does he need a swing coach, a putting coach, a nutritionist, a personal trainer and a sports psychologist? Because he wants to be a better golfer. So why doesn’t everyone in a senior position in an organization, given the importance of communication, want to be a better communicator?”

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