ALERT: this is an essay, so longer than the usual blog post. But stick with it, and you’ll better understand the ideas in my other (much shorter) posts.
The big question is why you must become a better writer at work. And I can think of five good reasons:
- English has many faces. As more people move more often around the globe, their culture, politics and speech patterns change how they use English. And as more people deploy English in their own way, the rest of us start to adapt. The term ‘Englishes’ describes three types of English speaker: those who speak English as a native language; those who speak it as a first language in addition to their native language, often for business (for example, Germany and Japan); and those who speak it as a second language, often as a legacy of colonial days (for example, Nigeria and India). As these three speaker types interact more, both through migration and online, English edges closer to becoming a language of acceptable variation. That is, it is increasingly not one language, but a series of pidgon voices.
- Increasing migration also means more workers have English as their second language (ESL). This pattern affects you at work in two ways. First, you may have ESL colleagues who write with different styles and syntax. How do you make your team writing efforts sound cohesive and clear? Second, you may have to convey a message to an ESL audience. How do you write an English that your readers understand and act on?
- As I said, you have limited time. And so does everyone, particularly for reading for work. You may think you write material that decision makers will read and use. But, if they don’t have the time, what happens to your document? Often, managers and other decision makers will pass it on to an intermediary (possibly a junior colleague) to read and recommend a response. In other words, someone sits between you and the person to whom you think you are writing. And that someone is interpreting your message for the intended message receiver.
- Technology allows me to talk to you here. It has completely changed how we send and receive workplace messages. Handheld devices mean we can check and send our work emails while travelling on the bus or queuing at the supermarket. We don’t conduct all our work correspondence at a desk anymore. Technology has also changed how we absorb information: from the traditional view that English speakers best deal with information by reading left to right, top to bottom (that is, how we write our alphabet), younger generations are savvy online readers who easily find information anywhere on a screen. What does this mean for the report format? Do we need to find new ways of engaging readers used to different layouts?
- Lastly, literacy levels are not what we hope for. In Australia, we assume high literacy because we value education. Yet our less esoteric newspapers pitch at the literacy level of a 9-11 year old, because they know the average adult reader can read and comprehend material at only this level. Further, our literacy is affected by our literary tastes. We are reading more online material and fewer hard copy publications. So, our reading is skewed to chunks of information, not detail. And it tends to include more opinion and colour, and less proven fact (as opposed to any unreferenced material that we find on Wikipedia and via Google searches). What we read is one of the main influences on how we write. So, these new information sources are changing our writing styles and habits. What’s the upshot? We’re getting better at finding information and entertainment, and reading different text types. But we’re not necessarily good at understanding what we find. And we’re certainly not good at adapting our writing for the many different forums in which we want to be heard.
What do these changes mean for work writers?
The above 5 influences mean you have a new writing environment:
- Arbitrary style. The idea of one language style is unworkable. Grammar, punctuation use and style preferences are more arbitrary. But you do need everyone in your writing team at work to share a writing approach. A reader must feel a ‘sameness’ about all the text in a document, so that means all writers on one document should follow the same rules.
- Abbreviated expression. We are using fewer words to convey a message. And we’re dropping some grammar rules, to allow us to write faster. Abbreviations and shortened words are everywhere, but seen at their most extreme in text messaging. Do you use short style in texts to a work colleague, or only to friends?
- Ambiguous meaning. Writing quickly, using abbreviated style and worrying less about grammar rules can muddy our meaning. This problem is very common in workplace writing, particularly correspondence.
- Authority shift. While we once valued fact and data, we now bow to the loudest voices in a field. We seek attitude, opinion, quick analysis and recommendation. We want to know what to think and how to act. A document no longer develops its authority with readers by giving them information (which they can probably find themselves online), but by packaging that information to help readers solve a problem or improve a situation.
- Animated tone. The days of the bureaucracy are over. No-one wants to read turgid text that buries its messages in multisyllabic guff. Readers want a text voice that is alive, genuine, engaging and authoritive. They want to hear the person behind the text.
So, that’s our writing space. Can you write well in this space? I invite you to keep reading this blog to become more of a wordsmith. Find new skills here for how you want or need to write, and check out the training modules that I will include in the coming weeks.