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My 800th Sunday column: the importance of writing well

This column records my 800th appearance on this page. It’s been a great ride, for more than 15 years now.

I thought I should commemorate the milestone by focusing on something that seems to be losing its importance in the modern world: good writing. By this I mean good writing coming from you.

We all enjoy great writing when we see it, whether it’s by a favourite author, op-ed contributor or even that tweeter who keeps you regaled every day. We seem to pay less attention these days, though, to writing well ourselves. In this modern era of quick, bite-sized communications and instant messaging, in which video is gradually taking over at the expense of the written word, it is easy to fall into that trap. It is easy to think that we can get by without being able to write particularly well.

You do this at your peril.

What does the world’s richest man think? Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, writes a letter to his shareholders every year. A letter, note, not a video recording or a barrage of tweets. In it, he provides a considered view of the progress the company is making, and highlights the challenges it faces in the years to come.

In this year’s letter, he made an important point: that customers are “divinely discontent” – that we “didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied.” When you give customers the power to buy (and complain) using a couple of clicks, they are going to use that power. The only way to stay ahead of ever-rising customer expectations is have high standards.

Those of you who have read some of the 799 columns that preceded this one will know that this thinking resonates deeply with me. But I am not here today to discuss customer care. I am here to show you Bezos’s peculiar way of ensuring standards stay high at his organization.

He points out in his 2018 letter that executives don’t do PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. Instead, anyone wishing to engage his or her colleagues on an important issue is expected to write a narratively structured six-page memo. At the beginning of each meeting, the assembled read the memo in silence, before beginning to discuss the information and proposal it contains.

Bezos points out that some of these memos “have the clarity of angels singing.” Many do not. But the pressure is on every senior executive to be able to write clearly and coherently, and to express an argument with lucidity and precision. In Bezos’s view, the act of writing a long piece makes you think deeply and clearly about it.

So: could you work for Jeff Bezos?

If you are the type who prefers disjointed pictures and bullet-points; who routinely makes errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation; who puts down a rambling, incoherent mess – I suspect you wouldn’t last long.

This is not just about the quirks of Jeff Bezos, and I would suggest you should pay attention especially if you are someone who struggles to write coherently. If you have any designs on leadership or senior management, teach yourself this skill – or have it taught to you. It’s not optional. You won’t be able to delegate it to others. Not all of us can be skilled writers, but many of us do need to be able to express ourselves competently in writing.

Interestingly, in a world where good spelling and punctuation are being defeated by the inanities of abbreviated texting, being able to write properly is an increasingly rare skill. That is exactly why you should cultivate it. Use it to stand out. Use it to develop distinction. Use it to do something that’s hard, that requires high standards – and that will make you better and stronger.

It’s not the ability to write per se that’s important, please note. It’s the ability to develop a carefully thought-out argument and communicate it effectively to others. That could be done by speaking, certainly; but the act of reading and writing engages deeper parts of the brain, especially when we are required to follow a line of thought for more than a paragraph or two.

My advice, which you are free to discard: don’t revel in being a poor writer. Don’t justify it. Remedy it. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you (it doesn’t to most people), work on it. It will make you a better thinker and a better communicator.

(Sunday Nation, 15 July 2018)

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