Writing has always been an activity with little margin for error.  In ancient Egypt, authors had to very carefully plan their writing, word by word, lest they make an error that required a complete restart with countless hours of rework.

Similarly, in the Middle Ages scribes recorded history or wrote letters for their patrons.  The cost of mistakes was high not just in time, but expensive materials like ink and paper.  Plenty of thought and planning went into the work before committing it to formal capture.

Even a generation ago, writing was a thoughtful and deliberate process, often moving through several steps before committing the words to final draft.  Dictation, shorthand and typing pools were common place through most of the 20th century where the ‘business letter’ was the primary medium for communication in organizations.

Fast-forward to today where we have a plethora of tools to support the written word.  Starting with ‘word processors’ in the 1980s, writing technology has evolved to include direct-to-digital capture via keyboards, touch-screens or dictation, all supported in real time by background applications like spelling and grammar checkers, autocorrect, and maybe most importantly, the backspace key.  These tools allow individuals to create writing at an unprecedented pace while counting on the ‘bots’ and backspace to correct the errors.

Implications at work

In organizations today, there is an ongoing flow of written communication.  Some of it is still formally planned and carefully composed, but most is on-the-fly, quickly composed and hastily sent.  Just have a look at your inbox right now or your instant messaging service!

We’ve all seen the funny (and sometimes calamitous) results of haphazardly written messages.     Whether it’s autocorrect changing a message from saying “Monday” to “Manboobs”, or the accidental “reply-all” talking about the annoying customer to a colleague, and mistakenly sending the message to that very customer.  These create humorous or dreadful moments.

Less obvious are the quickly composed messages that impact our organization’s productivity and our relationships with others.  Messages that are lazy, lack clarity, take shortcuts, imply meaning, or are sent to too many recipients fall into this category.   These all negatively impact organizational effectiveness.

Reflection’s on our behavior

The writing technology we have today pose important questions about how we behave.  In the mad rush to get more done in less time, or because we are creatures of habit, many of us fall into sloppy, poorly composed writing all too often.   Sometimes we take the easy road to write an email or send a text when another form of communication would be better.  Research tells us that in human communication words alone transmit only a small amount of information when compared to what we can transmit through tone and body language.

Therefore, one of the first questions we need to ask ourselves should be, “Is it best to communicate this in writing, or is a conversation more appropriate?”.  Clues that a conversation might be better is in situations where the content is high-stakes, potentially emotional, or where there are strongly differing opinions.  Similarly, situations where input is required or decisions need to be made with high ‘buy-in’ will lend themselves better to face-to-face discussion.

Even in situations where written communication is the best choice, are we balancing the effort we put in with the importance of the desired output?  Are we thinking about the objective before starting to write?  If it’s complex, are we prioritizing or breaking the message down into separate, discrete paragraphs for better clarity?  Are we sending to the right people for maximum effectiveness, or are we wasting some people’s time or covering our butt (it’s just so easy to cc the whole team)?  Are we rereading and editing before sending?  Are we sending a text or message in the moment when we get an idea, just so we don’t forget it (that is, expecting others to be our note takers)?

These questions can provide insight into the way we operate each day.  It starts by recognizing that our workplace technology makes it easy to write quickly and poorly.  And there may be times when the effort to spend more time on a message does not justify to benefit.  However, if we take the time to notice, we will discover that in many situations additional care, effort and diligence will pay us back significantly through improved effectiveness and relationships.

Article by: Tim O’Connor