John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Writing is overrated

I’ve worked with people who believed in writing memos – I used to believe in the practice myself. Spoken English is too sloppy, too casual, too little thought-out, they think. Sitting down with a pen or resorting to the keyboard, they think, gives them time to collect their ideas and present them in an orderly, succinct progression. It is more efficient, they say, clearer and less likely to result in misunderstandings.

Unfortunately, and my heart goes out to them, they are completely mistaken.

If you are to avoid their mistake, there are some things you have to understand.

First, people will not read your e-mail and your memos. They just don’t. They have pieces of prose flying at them all day long, as if they were pilots navigating through a barrage over Berlin. So they skim, or they stop at the third sentence in and never go back, or they ignore the text altogether.

That may be just as well, because if they paid attention to what you wrote, you might well be in trouble. Writing may be precise, but it lacks the cues of facial expression, tone, and gestures with which you communicate meaning in speech. That makes it dangerously easy for readers to misinterpret your tone and attention. What you intended as patient explanation, they see as pompous condescension; what you saw as puckish wit, they see as a sarcastic affront; what you present as a reasoned plan to correct faults, they will regard as impudence. You will do yourself no favors with these documents.

In government, in ecclesiastical circles, in business, and in other bureaucracies employing people of modest abilities keen to establish their value to the enterprise, the writing of memos resembles those Confucian exams that the Chinese imperial bureaucracy favored, or the dissertations that earn contemporary academics their doctorates: exercises pointless in themselves that serve to qualify the author for advancement. Keep it bland, and do not expect anyone to pay serious attention.

In my hot-blooded youth I imagined that wooing could be accomplished by lyrical letters and poetry, only to have the inutility of that approach regularly established. At work as in love, try face-to-face first.


  1. or host a webinar

  2. Or publish a blog.

  3. i am a youth who reads!!!!

  4. The problem, I think, is not just the writing, but that we've collectively lost the art of reading. And I do mean art. There is an artistry involved in good reading that is little understood and even less appreciated.

  5. Right on, John. Committing to face-to-face talk would improve our confusion and perhaps our fitness; we'd have to walk to someone else's desk to do it. People who are shier, or fear conflict, may feel some sense of arm's-length security from writing. But it's a poor substitute for real conversation, and as you correctly say, an ineffective one.

  6. Tell it, brother. I have for years watched my wife deal with her bosses across continents in two ways: E-mail and telephone. Whenever she would receive an upsetting e-mail, I would encourage her to get on the horn with the offending editor. When she took my advice, the resulting two-way exchange, while lacking the facial clues you rightly value, were nearly always less threatening and more constructive.
    -Erik in Kabul

  7. But the writing is evidence. You can sack them more easily when they ignore you.

  8. Another benefit of e-mail is that it can be less intrusive. If you go see someone, they have to stop what they're doing to take care of you. If you e-mail them, they can reply when they've finished whatever task they're working on.

    There are times for meetings and conversation but not everything requires a meeting or conversation.

  9. What Picky said.
    Many many many managers I know don't write to communicate; they could care less if their message is received. They write to document--poor performance, lateness and absence, inappropriate behavior, non-standard dress, poor hygiene, etc.
    The messages are fodder for folders and amount to a "case" being assembled.
    So, no, not everyone who writes wants to be understood.
    As a former manager yourself, you know that, right?

  10. Yes Picky. Memos are about the paper trail. They're also something to refer to once you actually have to do the work. So, augment, or cement: follow up in person or send the memo after you talk.

    Oh, and: if there's a problem with the reading then maybe there's a problem with the writing as well. Memos aren't for dumping, they're for pegging, highlighting, spurring.

  11. @Thomas,

    Not in today's work environment. People are expected to have read an e-mail immediately after it goes out, even though that makes no sense. I've often railed against the idea of e-mail as an instant communication mechanism. I tell people to call me if they need me immediately and not to assume I have e-mail access. But the idea that e-mails must be read at once persists in corporations, interrupting work and wasting valuable time as people try to re-enter the flow state the e-mail broke.

  12. I don't agree but a thoughtful, concise, well-argued response would take too long to write ...

    Instead I present this example from Glen Kelman, President and CEO of Redfin, to support my belief that writing is not overrated. It is underdone.

  13. Here, here, Mr. McIntyre! I am in complete agreement. Among my father's pearls of advice to me when I've struggled with poor communication from others was the admonishment never to be so lazy or fearful as to do by e-mail what is most appropriately done in conversation. A poor choice of communication medium can beget more damage than you might think.

  14. How did this post end? I only got through the first two paragraphs.

  15. In journalism, management's memos are not so much read as edited, as underlings seek proof of their theory that every manager is a dunce.

  16. Is it really "either-or?" Aren't there times appropriate to each medium? I, for one, hate to talk on the telephone. I don't trust the words I'm hearing without seeing those visual clues to which you refer. But there are times when it is the best method of communication.

    There are also times when e-mail works best. Late at night, for instance, when a call would be intrusive, but the message will be there for them when they check in the next day.

    Plus, I any other written medium...the secret is in the writing. Being sensitive to the timing, length, and choice of language gives written notes a greater chance of success. And...of course...good editing helps.

  17. I could not agree more. I am a better writer than I am a speaker. I'm shy and I can lose my train of thought and trip over my words quite easily. When I write, I think about exactly what I want to say and I have the time to be as clear and concise as I can. I am so much more eloquent on paper than I am in person.

    But I found that especially in a work situation, writing is the least effective way to communicate. If I need to communicate something routine and small, I'll send an email. If there's an issue that needs some degree of feedback and discussion, I will pick up the phone. If there's a disagreement or a complex issue to deal with, I will communicate face to face (if that's possible).