Given that I put myself through four years of undergrad English lit and two of graduate creative writing seminars, it's probably no shock that I value the ability to write well highly. But it's not just word nerds like me who insist that writing is an undersung skill that can help you get ahead no matter what career you're in.
A host of business leaders and technologists have long claimed that solid writing skills are essential for advancement even in technical roles. Other experts warn bad corporate writing is a symptom of deeper strategic and cultural problems at a company, and Jeff Bezos has made long-form narrative writing the centerpiece of strategy planning at Amazon.
But while writing has always been valuable (and often undervalued), it's more important than ever in our new world of remote and hybrid work.
Clear writing is a mark of respect
Erica Dhawan explained why recently in an excerpt of her new book, Digital Body Language, featured on the TED Ideas blog. In the course of the long section on how to make employees feel heard and valued even at a distance, the author underlines just how critical clear writing is in a world where we lean less on in-face interactions and more on asynchronous communication.
"Writing well is a critical mark of respect," she insists. By taking the time to carefully form your words, you demonstrate you value the recipient's time and feelings enough to avoid misunderstandings, vagueness, and brusque language.
You don't need to write like a snooty professor or never make an error that would cause your high school English teacher to reach for her red pen. A quick Slack message with three emojis and no capital letters can be well, or poorly, written. The standard isn't any particular style. It's whether your words match the job they're intended to do.
"If you're the boss, be mindful of writing down any half-baked ideas, and when you do, be sure to separate them from your true marching orders," Dhawan advises. "If you're not the boss, don't be afraid to ask clarifying questions up front. A clarifying question is less embarrassing and time-consuming than a poor work product down the line."
Which doesn't mean a thoughtless typo can never cause trouble. "A lot of the time, a misinterpreted email is the result of a dropped word or misleading punctuation mark," Dhawan adds. "The solution is simple: Proofread your emails. Make it a point of pride to send clean, unambiguous communications."
Simple principles for instantly better writing
Was this good advice way back in 2019 when almost none of us had ever heard the word coronavirus? Of course. But Dhawan's insistence on attending to the craft of writing is vastly more important now that many of us are relying so much more on emails, text messages, Slack, and various written proposals, updates, and reports.
If you accept that the value of good writing has skyrocketed but fear your skills aren't ready for this new era, fear not. Harvard's Steven Pinker and other veteran writers have offered a handful of dead simple principles that, if you keep them in mind, will almost instantly improve your writing.
Simply caring enough to choose your words carefully, cut excess flab from your writing, and check it for errors is often enough to transform a piece of writing from confusing to clarifying or disrespectful to respectful. The first step to becoming a good writer is valuing good writing. If you work remotely at all, it's past time you took that step.