Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Write Stuff 2.0

A couple days ago it arose in my consciousness that I had something to say about writing, and I hit upon (what I thought was) a clever title, The Write Stuff. Then it occurred to me that I may have already used it, and I'll be damned if I hadn't. I employed it almost four years ago, for my July 20, 2009 blog (on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moon walk). Oops. At least I caught myself in time to label this entry as a sequel.

• • •
As a process consultant and as FIC's main administrator, I see a near-constant flow of emails, reports, proposals, and monographs. Over the years I've developed enduring respect for the power of clear and concise writing to inspire, to bring people together, and to be a record of the moment.

As someone who labors diligently to be an effective writer, I'm aware of the benefit that clients get from my ability to pathfind a solution to a knotty issue and then to write it up before I go to bed. (I can hardly count how many times I've seen genuine agreement slip away for lack of its being clearly captured in writing while the energy was aligned. It is a dangerous practice to rely solely on memory and oral tradition to see you through.)

As near as I can tell, public education is not doing a good job of teaching students to write well, nor is it developing in students a good attitude about learning to write. While I don't have a sense of whether teachers themselves are below-average writers, it's not hard to speculate on why students are getting so little practice at such a basic skill (it is, after all, one of the three R's—reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic—even if you have to butcher the spelling in order to force the mnemonic): classes are too large for teachers who are underpaid. 

Under pressure of time, it must be all but irresistible for instructors to reach for true/false or multiple choice options for tests and homework assignments, rather than using essay questions, which require much more time and thoughtful analysis to review. With lack of practice or encouragement in school, youngsters are left with parental guidance or individual initiative as a source of motivation to develop their writing muscles. It doesn't appear to me that it's enough.

The Demise of the Art of the Letter
Making matters worse, today's young are overwhelmingly immersed in communicating via mobile devices, instant messaging, and social media, where the breeziness of Facebook stands out as spacious and loquacious when set aside the 140-character hard limit of Twitter and what people can accomplish with thumbs via texting on their smart phones—where the emphasis is on acronyms (WTF?), abbreviations, and sentence fragments that make a joke out of the concept of syntax. 

When email caught on as a major form of communication in the early '90s, it led to a standard of briefer and less carefully created messages, undercutting epistolary skills. With the surging dominance of mobile devices, attention spans are shorter and so is the average length of messages and the amount of care that goes into crafting them. Who writes letters any more?

Who works at writing clearly today? It's not as if the need is disappearing; just the practice of it.

Dissecting the Craft
Writing is not a single monolithic skill, any more than facilitation is. There are several components, and a person can be good at one and not so hot at another:

This is the ability to present main ideas in an understandable sequence, so that the reader can see the forest and not get lost in the trees.
Evocative phrasing
This is part creativity (so that the melody will stand out and be memorable); part composition (so that the images and concepts flow); and partly word choice (so that your meaning is precise). Good writing entertains and engages, not merely elucidates and edifies.

Copy editing 
To be fair, English is a brutally complicated language with spelling and grammar as complex as Balkan politics or voting rules in Florida. While it's not easy to master all the nuances and the ultimate test is clarity—not how well you colored between the lines—inconsistencies, sloppy punctuation, and poor word choice all erode meaning. 

Matching tone with context
The extent to which you slant your composition toward the formal and away from the colloquial depends partly on the medium and partly on the audience. There are different standards for blogs than for scientific magazines; a speech written to be delivered before the House of Commons will be structured differently than a sketch to be performed before a live audience at the House of Comedy Theater.

Lean of expression 
How concisely can you make your point(s) without compromise of clarity or depth? If brevity is the soul of wit, how funny are you?

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