Mark Twain once noted that “to get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.”
I find it hard to believe the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn considered writing a struggle (though he must have—he also said, "Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.") Today, with so many publishing platforms, many people fancy themselves writers. But I know how difficult it is, even for those responsible for writing, tweeting, and speaking on behalf of companies, to find the right words and the right place for them. Good writing is, indeed, all too rare.
Cranking out masterful writing that is crisp, stirring, and grammatically spot-on is hard—really hard. Still, as a communicator, I want to see writing that inspires me. However, the reality is different. Major news organizations have sent copyeditors packing to save money and to enable writers to publish quickly. People are encouraged to package thoughts in 140 characters or less and express themselves—OMG—in cutesy shorthand. Even Twain—who championed the use of simple language, short words, and brief sentences—would be appalled.
Twain died more than 100 years ago, but he is on my mind because I recently joined the board of the Mark Twain House and Museum. This organization has preserved and opened the doors of Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, Conn., and is also focused on helping students of all ages appreciate the qualities of great prose and storytelling.
This is especially important in business today. There are many vehicles, outlets, and opportunities for great brand storytelling. To make the best use of them, companies need writers who understand narrative, style, and voice. And to do that, they need to support the good writers they employ and foster the development of good writing skills among others.
How to do that? Here are my tips:
- Help writers find good editors. When I joined Xerox, I was fortunate to become a student of the company’s masterful communicator, Joseph M. Cahalan, a 40-year company veteran who refuses to write a bad sentence, whether he’s penning strategy memos, talking points, stakeholder letters, emails—you name it. Joe is a storyteller at heart and his engaging style translates remarkably well in the written word. When I read Joe’s work, I feel like he’s having a conversation with me over a cup of coffee. Authentic, approachable, engaging...and, as a result, memorable.
- Start a company book group. Twain said “a person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Good writers are voracious readers. Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and Something Happened by Joseph Heller, some of the most noteworthy novels contain references and lessons for everyone in business.
- Get inspiration from the pros. I like The New York Times blog Draft, where seasoned grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, and novelists share writing tips and tricks. And marketing organizations should make sure every employee has a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. My well-used copy, with many dog-eared pages (from when I need to remind myself of the differences between affect and effect), sits beside my AP Style Guide on the shelf above my computer monitor. Where’s yours?
- Demonstrate that being a good communicator is a career asset. People in business must be able to articulate their ideas, accomplishments, and their expectations. Based on how we work today, too often this communication happens in an email. And, a simple turn of phrase, attention to detail, tone, and proper use of basic grammar rules can send a powerful first, second, third impression—in any profession. Kyle Wiens, CEO of the online repair community iFixit, recently underlined just how important good communications are in a widely read Harvard Business Review post, “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” Early in my career, a boss used to write his emails in ALL CAPS. I felt like he was ALWAYS SCREAMING AT ME. Effective communicators are in tune to the details; great writers know that their prose sings when they’re true to the right style.
Looking ahead, I fear corporate America will have an even harder time finding good writers. Earlier this year, Harvard reduced the number of essays required for application to its MBA program to two from four. Admissions officers apparently believe that applicant interviews are now a more reliable metric for success, but I wonder about the message this sends to prospective students. Instead of reducing the number of essays, why not change the requirements? Why not ask applicants to outline a market strategy, submit an article with an informed point of view, or even write a speech? Indeed, MBA students should have access to journalism school classes. Both could benefit. In the 21st century, writers will need all the business acumen they can muster, and people in business will benefit from becoming more astute writers.
I was frustrated recently when one my kids, who happens to be a voracious reader and a very good writer, suggested that winning a writing award at school would be like wearing the letter “L,” for “loser.” It was an exaggeration that only a tween can make. But, at the minimum, I’m hopeful that his comment was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
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—Christa Carone is the chief marketing officer of Xerox Corporation.
[Image: Flickr user Tanakawho]