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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

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.