The slippery slope from texting to email: why writing well matters

When a friend pointed me to this NSFW piece on Cracked, the section titled “Pay Attention in Writing Classes, It Turns Out You Need Them” immediately got my attention. It was right in line with something I think is getting lost in today’s 140-character-limit communication environment.

Here’s what John Cheese says about the importance of writing well:

Several years ago, when I was working at a low-level manual labor job, I was tasked with picking out a few applications for potential hires…I came across an application from a 21 year-old man who had a high school diploma and two years of college…[W]hat made me put the application in the “Not a Chance in Hell” pile was when I saw his response to, “Why would you like to work for our company?”

2 C some $$$ 4 a chng!!!

…I’ve touched on this subject before…[s]o I won’t repeat the same point beyond stressing how important it is that you learn to type in your native language better than the average 12 year old…[I]f your messages are full of typos and jumbled words, [people] are going to make assumptions about your intelligence. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying you have to be Hemingway by any means. You don’t need to know how to write descriptions that touch the human soul. But you need to learn to be concise and clear in print, or it will be coming back to bite you in the ass over and over.

Cheese is dead on, of course. First impressions carry a lot of weight, and today, most first impressions are made in writing. Whether you’re applying for a job or trying to build professional relationships, then, writing well can often mean the difference between a foot in the door and the door being slammed in your face.

texting outside Chicago Art Department by opacity on Flick

However, I think there’s another reason why writing well is more critical than ever before: if typos, abbreviated text-speak and bad grammar persist in your writing, you’re asking the reader to do too much work. In order to decipher your messages, the reader would have to translate what’s on the page or screen into what he or she thinks you mean. In most cases, though, the reader isn’t going to take the time to do so. After all, with all the messages competing for our attention, why would a reader do your work for you when there’s so much well-written content out there waiting to be consumed?

One of the biggest problems I’m seeing is a direct result of text messaging and Twitter. Writing a statement like “2 C some $$$ 4 a chng!!!” is perfectly acceptable in a text or on Twitter, in most cases, because of the limitations of those media and the expectations of the audience. But once you get in the habit of abbreviating in texts and Tweets, it becomes tempting to do it everywhere else, including in email messages. Why? Because it’s easier for you. Typing “2 C” instead of “to see,” for example, saves three keystrokes. Those add up after a while, right?

But here’s the problem: in decreasing the labor intensity of composing your message, you’ve just increased the labor intensity for the reader. We go to Twitter and texting knowing it’s a compromise, and willing to put in more labor as readers because we also save labor as writers and enjoy the convenience of communicating in a quick, easy-to-produce-and-consume format. There is no such agreement with email, however. That means the reader will not cut you nearly as much slack.

A related issue is that we’re composing more and more email messages on mobile devices. While our smart phones are a godsend for keeping us connected, they make it even more tempting to put our needs as writers before those of our readers. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, small keyboards and touch screens encourage abbreviation; and second, because we’re inputting text on the same device we use for texts and Tweets, we think the experience is exactly the same. It may be for us as writers, but it isn’t for our readers. They won’t give you any breaks because you composed a message on an iPhone instead of a laptop.

I’d encourage you to take a hard look at your writing to see if bad habits learned from texting and/or Twitter are making their way into other messages. (I need to do the same thing, of course.) If so, or if other bad habits like poor grammar or typos are too common a problem, it’s critical that you resolve the issue. Take a writing class if you can’t solve it on your own. Read books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss for specific issues like punctuation (yes, punctuation still matters–more than ever before, in fact). Most of all, though, put your reader first, always, and you’ll have a chance of writing in a way that cuts through all the clutter that he or she is contending with. The alternative–doing what’s easy for you and refusing to improve your skills or check you work–won’t only guarantee a bad first impression. It will guarantee that most of your writing never gets read at all.

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3 Responses to The slippery slope from texting to email: why writing well matters

  1. Andy Welfle says:

    Thanks for the post! I couldn’t agree more. Occasionally I’ll find myself typing “thru” in an email, because I’ve gotten in the habit of using that instead of “through” on Twitter. Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m catching and changing those mistakes.

    I think of a lot of job applicants might use language like “2 C some $$$ 4 a chng!!!” on their application to be funny, or to show the potential employer that they are hip or have a sense of humor. When I was in a position to sort through resumes for a new hire, I looked at a writing sample from a woman who wrote a mock press release about her being hired for the position. It started out, “The Creative Genius that is [APPLICANT’S NAME], and proceeded to end every sentence with an exclamation mark. It was hard to read, and definitely went in the “not a chance in hell” pile.

  2. Tammy Davis says:

    You’re singing my song! Thank you so much for reiterating this important point. When people can’t communicate effectively–and that is based on a foundation of grammar, spelling, and punctuation–much is at risk of becoming lost in translation. Besides that, it makes the creator of the communication look either lazy or unintelligent. I prefer to wear the mantle of neither.

  3. Pingback: Back on the soapbox « Wordsmatter

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