Should good writing be a core skill for professional communicators?2010-07-23
Update, July 27: I’ve added a statement I just received from Anne Wiley at the bottom of the post.
Early this month, Liam FitzPatrick, who manages Change and Internal Communication for Bell Pottinger, argued in a post titled “Who Cares About Writing Skills?” that good writing should not be a requirement for professional communicators. Specifically, he wrote:
To be honest I don???t think being a good writer matters ???- I???ve met plenty of great comms people who couldn???t write to save their lives and I know a few fantastic writers who I???d never trust to give communications advice.
I wasn’t alone in finding myself aghast at FitzPatrick’s claim. While being a good writer doesn’t by itself qualify someone to lead a strategic communication effort, I would never hire someone to manage communication who can’t write, nor would I hire anyone into a front-line communication job who couldn’t tell a story in words.
FitzPatrick wrote, “I???m not sure I???d appoint a director of comms on the basis of their ability to win a Pulitzer prize.” But there’s a lot of room between not being able to write to save your life and writing a Pulitzer-winning article.
David Murray and Reuben Bronee have already shared their thoughts on FitzPatrick’s post. I was about to join them when it occurred to me that it might be even more interesting to collect responses from some of the best strategic communications professionals I know:
Julie Freeman, ABC, APR
President, International Association of Business Communicators
Well chosen words—whether they are written or spoken—have the power to inform, to persuade, to evoke emotion. But there is extra pressure on the written word. Even in the YouTube era, writing is still more permanent. And often it has limits. Think of the Proctor and Gamble directive that no memo could be longer than two pages. Or word limits for articles in the employee newsletter.
Because of these pressures, the basis for good writing is not a great vocabulary or the ability to craft elegant sentences. Instead, the basis for good writing is sound thinking. James Joyce might have been celebrated for stream of consciousness, but those writing in the business world need to think through their ideas, how to organize them and how to link them. They need to know what their audience knows or thinks about their topic and how to address those perceptions. I don’t see how writing skills could ever be considered anything but essential. Aren’t sound thinking and understanding of stakeholders skills that every manager, executive and strategist needs?
Don Ranly, IABC Fellow
Missouri School of Journalism
Several of (those contributing observations to this post) reflected what (H.L.) Mencken said, “The reason politicians can’t think clearly is that they can’t write clearly.”
You don’t have a clear thought until you can write it down clearly. You know you have done that when others have understood you clearly.
Writing demands that words follow words, sentences follow sentences, sentences follow paragraphs. In other words, writing demands sequence, structure, the stuff of logic. Being logical is essential, but being human also means expressing emotion. Writing is one of emotion’s great instruments.
Oral transmission can get lost and convoluted. The written word is permanent, there for all to comprehend—perhaps forever.
Artists (painters, musicians and such) can use other media to communicate, and managers should know and appreciate what they do, but these other media cannot substitute for the skill of clear writing.
To say that solid writing skills should not be a required skill for a job in communications is to say that communications skills are not required.
Vice President at ROI Communication
Formerly VP at Towers Perrin
Author, “The Credible Corporation” and “Communicating for Change”
The ‘outstanding communicators who can’t write a decent sentence’ are like carpenters without hammers and nails. They both build rickety end products.
I attribute this sad state of affairs to the equally sad state of public and university education and to the patronizing notion that all any audience requires is flashy images and fragments of thought. That’s why we have attempts to address serious institutional communication problems with videos, half-baked ‘executive’ blogs and internal PR campaigns (complete with posters and themes) directed at distressed adults who live the circumstances trivialized by the ‘solutions.’ Sadly, the ‘excellent communicators who can’t write a decent sentence’ are often the villains of this piece because they have so little regard for the intelligence and sophistication of their audience.
Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D., ABC
Professor and Chairman, Department of Communications
Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania
Last year I did a research project that included the analysis of about 500 job ads and position descriptions (international in representation). I was looking for patterns in competencies and expectations of communicators at various career levels. Overwhelmingly the top skill employers expect across the board from entry-level to senior-level communicators is quality writing. Many descriptions went as far as to expect proficiency in AP style. (If you’d like a copy of the executive summary, drop me a line.)
Let me put on another hat ??? my educator hat. Writing is one of the greatest weaknesses of the first year students. We spend a lot of time working with them on the basics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) before they take entry-level journalism courses. I have a number of theories about why writing skills have decreased in quality over the last 10 years, but that???s a conversation for another day.
We’re living in this digital age where literacy is a requirement to participate in local and global discussions. Today it’s impossible to expect to be in a communication role and not be expected to write messages on behalf of the your client or employer. Getting it right the first time and being able to reinforce business strategy and commitments is key to success in that social contract. And when times are lean and employers cut staffing, these basic tasks fall back to those remaining in the office; in many cases that’s the middle and senior communication staff. So we can’t let those skills get rusty just because our work has progressed more toward strategy and less on the tactical elements.
Global Planning, Employee Communications
I, too, have observed a diminution of writing skills among communicators at all levels, which saddens me. I worry that writing skills will soon cease to be a requirement for a job in communications, for two reasons: a) the hiring manager didn’t learn standard grammar and composition in school, so won’t recognize poor writing when he or she sees it, and b) our writing muscles are atrophying in this new age where brevity trumps thoughtful insight.
Here is my bias: Good writing should continue to be the differentiator when hiring, period. The ability to compose a tight, well-structured and correctly punctuated paragraph under a deadline is a pretty darned good indicator that the candidate under consideration is literate, well-educated, can think and execute under pressure, and can convey a message with impact. All desirable attributes for anybody’s workforce - especially a communications professional.
D. Mark Schumann, ABC
Past Chair, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)
Former Principal at Towers Perrin
I love to write because, at one moment, it’s the most logical thing I can be doing; at another, the most free and creative. At every moment, it’s the opportunity to think and explore and reason and conclude. Every time we write we take a journey; sometimes the destinations actually make sense and a contribution.
In business, for any leader, manager, contributor, writing is essential because writing illustrates the progression of thought. Without narrative, how can business reason its past and forecast its future? Without clarity, how can organizations engage? Without facts, how can institutions govern?
Before new media challenged the standards of clear writing, we entered the PowerPoint era; all of sudden we found ourselves presenting ideas that didn’t necessarily make sense, but looked great; didn’t certainly make a contribution, but neatly fit into boxes and circles and arrows; and didn’t clearly tell a story, but could make us look very smart. And now, with new media, the narrative risks extinction as shortcuts and abbreviations and symbols become the rule.
Writing is at the core of excellence in business, well beyond the contributors of a communicator. Clarity in business leadership requires clarity in business thinking. And unless we write it down, how can we ever think with clarity?
Lester R. Potter, MBA, ABC, IABC Fellow
Department of Mass Communication & Communication Studies
Writing skills are the fundamental and critically important core competency for communication management. One of the most important functions communicators provide for organizations is to take complex topics and boil them down into clear, easily-understood information for the organization’s audiences. Writing skills are fundamental to accomplishing this. Clear writing indicates clear thinking.
Brad Whitworth, ABC, IABC Fellow
Communications Manager, Strategic Alliances
I see the de-emphasis of writing skills as fallout from the huge “rush” that rules our world today. “Short” and “fast” trump “thoughtful” and “clear.” “Now” beats “later.” We expect instant access to our friends, to entertainment, to news from anywhere at anytime on any device. Text messages interrupt our dinners, tweets prove to everyone that we’re on top of our game.
Sadly, our collective priorities have changed. When speed is the ultimate prize and a 140-character limit is your biggest obstacle, the writing basics of clear, concise, correct, complete, consistent, creative and coherent (thank you, Don Ranly) are shoved into the back seat.
Wylie Communications Inc.
Good writing can cause audience members to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on our messages. As long as those outcomes are not among your objectives, then no, writing skills are not essential.
Also, with a nod to Don Ranley’s comment, I love Flannery O’Connor’s quote, “I write because I don’t know that I think until I read what I say.” The best compliment I ever received at a writing workshop came from a Finnish engineer who arrived just KNOWING that marketing writing was all fluff. At the end of the program, he said, “This isn’t writing. It’s thinking.”
As we say in Missouri, “Yup!”
A few of the people I queried haven’t replied yet. If they do, I’ll append the post with their observations.
What do you think? Should writing skills be a requirement for a communications job?