Timothy R. Clark: Leadership and the importance of writing well

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 8:07 a.m. MDT

Writing well is part of leading well. Through writing we educate and motivate.

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What does writing have to do with leadership? Perhaps more than you think. “Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” declared John F. Kennedy. Granted, few leaders will ever wield a literary sword like Churchill. But that’s not my point. My point is that if you don’t learn to write well — if you can’t get your point across in a clear, concise and organized way — you have no choice but to spray and pray. Writing well is part of leading well. Through writing we educate and motivate. Through writing we create vision. Through writing we instruct and get things done.

I’m not suggesting we can all become great writers, but we can become good ones. The American critic Ambrose Bierce explained, “There is a good deal of popular ignorance about writing; it is commonly thought that good writing comes of a natural gift and that without the gift the trick cannot be learned. That is true of great writing, but not of good. Anyone of good natural intelligence and a fair education can be taught to write well, as well as he can be taught to draw well, or play billiards well, or shoot a rifle well, and so forth; to do any of these things greatly is another matter. If one cannot do great work, it is worthwhile to do good work and think it great.”

To be a great writer is another topic for another time. I’m talking about putting words on paper to get a job done. Forget about the finer points of style. That comes later. Let’s just think about what it takes to write a coherent email.

The American style of writing, if there is one, is “clear, straight and plainspoken,” wrote Joseph M. Williams. It sounds easy to write that way. Lucid writing is easy on the eyes. The ease of consuming good writing suggests the same ease in producing it. But, of course that isn’t true. Good writing conceals its own labor.

In our modern society, things are working strongly against us. For example, we like to chunk our communications. Think about the sound bite or the 140-character tweet. Think about how texting has become its own shorn language. When my daughter texts, she uses incomplete sentences, acronyms like TMI (too much information) and emoticons to convey thoughts and feelings. This isn’t all bad, but it doesn’t help you write well.

Further, the mass media sedates us. We become passive consumers of superficial content. According to gifted writer David Foster Wallace, television’s “weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat.” With the average American watching 28 hours of television a week, that statement is not a hypothesis. It’s a fact. A 28-hour-a-week TV watcher is too busy to learn to write well.

Not least, our public school system is engaged in a long-term retreat from English composition. The standard curriculum requires less writing than it used to. And even when students are assigned to write papers, teachers seldom read them, much less return them with heavy marginal notes. My junior high school-age children have their papers graded by a computer. They come home with high scores for clotted prose and low scores for clean prose. Can we be serious? Can a computer algorithm replace Mr. Westergard’s mentoring hand?

Writing well is a discipline and an art. You have to practice. You can’t cheat the process. As George Orwell said in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

Learning to write well is like gaining control of a spirited horse. If you can harness its power, it will do great things for you. Eventually, it will turn on your gentle command, gallop on your signal and jump when you say so. But don’t expect to find a docile creature if you spend most of your time watching TV. That spirited horse will buck you off and run away.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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