The Return of Writing
Unless you're a professional wordsmith, it's unlikely you've written much of anything that's much longer than an email since college.
That might come as a relief to many, and for good reason. Tech makes it ever easier to communicate and accomplish just about everything without older, more laborious methods. Want to meet a friend? A quick text will sort you out. Need to communicate a plan or present some data? That's what PowerPoint is for.
But even as computers make it ever easier to use fewer actions--and words--to accomplish our everyday business, a couple of high-powered business leaders are pushing back, insisting employees and job candidates flex their atrophying writing muscles.
In a lengthy profile recently, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, for example, revealed a love of narrative, dead-tree memos that's a bit ironic for the head of the company behind the Kindle. Fortune's Adam Lashinsky explains:
Meetings of his "S-team" of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team -- including Bezos -- consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes….
Amazon (AMZN) executives call these documents "narratives," and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated -- and fans of the PowerPoint presentation -- the process is a bit odd. "For new employees, it's a strange initial experience," he tells Fortune. "They're just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives." Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group's undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. "Full sentences are harder to write," he says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
Writing – really writing not shoehorning wit into 140 characters or figuring out the fewest possible thumb strokes to get your idea across – as an aid to truth and clear thinking isn't just appealing to your college composition teacher and Jeff Bezos. When Evernote CEO Phil Libin recently penned a post here on Inc.com about how he hires, he also stressed the value of serious, grammatically correct writing in evaluating candidates. He suggests:
Make them write. When I'm interviewing people, I like to give them a writing test. I ask them to write a few paragraphs in normal English, or whatever language they're going to be working in the most, about a topic I assign. I try to keep the topics short and useful. For example, I asked recent candidates to write a short letter to Evernote ambassadors (volunteers who help represent us to our users in particular verticals) to thank them for their service and invite them to our annual conference. I find that you can tell a lot more about a person's personality from a few paragraphs of their writing than from a lengthy verbal interview. Many people can pretend to be something they're not in person, but very few people can do so in writing.
Both leaders see long-form writing as a source of insight into what the people around them truly do and do not understand. And if you gaze back through the haze of time, you'll probably recall that when you were a student, writing, whether you loved or loathed it, served a similar purpose. You could delude yourself into imagining you understood Chaucer or organic chemistry until the exact moment you tried to sit down and write a paper on the topic. Then the extent of your ignorance and confusion became glaringly obvious.
Could incorporating more long-form writing into your work routine provide similar clarity about how well you understand your business?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.