Writing has become a lost art. The US Department of Education estimated that 1 in 7 Americans are functionally illiterate, a figure relatively unchanged from 1992 to 2003. Effective written communication complements effective verbal communication. (Before we go too far, let me also remind you to hone your listening and verbal communication skills. Given the option of verbal or written communication, verbal communication is almost always a win in a small group.)
When we write for an audience, we aspire to move the world a bit in our direction. Sometimes we seek a bit of immortality by contributing to a body of literature that will outlive us. In either case, what we write matters — perhaps more so than our more ephemeral verbal communication. Writing, therefore, begs the discipline to evaluate consequences. Good writing is leadership. Use writing to develop a following in a direction that adds value to the community and the world.
Good writing is hard work, but discipline can make our writing more effective. If there is one universal rule, it is to continuously revise: evolve good works into great works. You and your work should be agile, responding to newfound inspirations, learning, and insights. Though in the end a written work carries its message unaided to the world, any work in progress should be embedded in dialog and dialectic. Too many writers use the pen as a one-way tool. Keep the conversation going until it fades — then, it’s time to hit the SEND button, or to publish.
While we usually think of writing as outwardly focused, it is in fact a great way to challenge and reflect on you own prejudices. Forster quips, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It is not only others who can challenge a work in progress: use your own internal dialog to challenge yourself. You may find that writing becomes a tool to keep you more honest with yourself.
Rather than standing on their tiptoes, great writers stand on the shoulders of giants. A great engineer goes beyond his or her own wiles and educational foundations not only to build on the knowledge of colleagues and friends, but of all of those who have gone before. I’m not talking about Googling the web for pithy quotes, but about investing in the topic about which you are writing. The research that accompanies great writing helps you appreciate the world around you and to see it with new eyes. Writing can be a great medium to pass on treasured insights that others have given you. Give them credit.
If you're in college, take literature and poetry classes. Keep a diary. Write poetry. Find a pen pal and write letters. If you’re a programmer, remember that computers are people, too, and that code is — or should be — literature. Name every identifier with the same care as naming a first-born child. Express the business goal crisply in your code. When editing a colleague’s code, treat it with the dignity you would accord to their poetry. And whatever your station in life, you’ll find that voracious reading will improve your writing — whether the medium be articles, code, or a book.
Good writing emerges from habits, and habits emerges from practice. Richard Gabriel once advised me to try out his habit of honing every Email into a refined work of literature. While it is helpful to learn the more formal tools of rhetoric, in the end you become a good writer by writing. Why do you think I do this blog?