The Future of….The Written Word
– by James Lumley
“The most rigorous instruction in prose writing that I ever received came, not from any schoolteacher or university tutor, least of all from writing school. It came from the classically educated senior officers on the top floor of MI5’s headquarters in Curzon Street, Mayfair, who seized on my reports with gleeful pedantry, heaping contempt upon my dangling clauses and gratuitous adverbs, scoring the margins of my deathless prose with such comments as redundant – omit – sloppy -do you really mean this? No editor I have since encountered was so exacting, or so right.”
David Cornwell (John Le Carre), The Pigeon Tunnel: stories from my life.
When I read this passage in John Le Carre’s new autobiographical memoir I felt empathy and joy in equal measure.
I have been reading John Le Carre novels for all my adult life and have enjoyed every page of every single one of them.
Le Carre’s real name, of course, is David Cornwell. He is, by any standards, a very educated man. He was a top scholar at Dorset public school Sherborne, before fleeing England at a precociously young age to enrol at the University of Berne, where he studied languages. National Service followed, then Oxford University. Then, a stint as a French and German teacher at Eton College before he joined MI5 in which, as well as being a ground operative, he did what many of us do every day: he sat at a desk and wrote reports.
And, as far as his superiors were concerned, he couldn’t write for toffee.
So, when he started his desk job, one of Britain’s greatest post-war novelists is happy to admit that he was just like us. This is wonderfully encouraging.
Cornwell’s anecdote exposes a universal truth of working life. Almost all of us come through school and university and start our jobs not really knowing the first thing about writing. We tend to just write, without thinking about it. Weren’t we always told we were good writers anyway? So when we get our first paid job, sit at our first office desk, and write our first report, the result will usually be somewhere between “fine” and “dreadful”.
For my first job, I worked as a journalist. Writing for publication was what I had to do from the start. As such, I had my sloppiness kicked out of me early. Cornwell’s MI5 bosses were doing to him what sub-editors have done to beardless young hacks for generations, and it helped to turn him into a writer.
Most of us are not lucky enough to be belittled at an early stage in our careers by a gang of acerbic pedants, so most people’s growth as workplace writers is more gradual.
Until quite recently most of us wrote for an audience of colleagues. If we wrote lots of reports, our writing would improve, but as what we wrote was read by colleagues with similar technical experience to us, they generally understood what we were saying. We didn’t really question our writing skills, and didn’t really need to.
Things have changed.
We now live in a world of LinkedIn posts, business website articles, corporate blogs and tweets, thought leadership, and content marketing. Almost all of us are called upon to broadcast our written words: to push them out for public consumption.
More and more of us are now called upon to write things that will be read by anybody and everybody. People who don’t know our industries inside out. People who don’t know our jargon. People who need things explained properly, without being patronised. People who are going to stop reading when they encounter writing that is dense, overblown, or unclear.
Journalists and novelist have editors. Even after more than 60 years of professional writing, every word that David Cornwell publishes will be examined and prodded by someone else before being sent to be read by the world at large. Yet most of us in the normal working world send our words out for public scrutiny without that safety net.
It really isn’t fair.
So what do I suggest?
There are a few possible solutions. Some businesses employ “in house journalist” to help them craft their message. This is no bad idea as long as that journalist has the skills to mentor corporate colleagues. There is too much writing in a mid-sized business for one person, and rarely the budget for a team.
Cornwell didn’t learn to write by going to a writing class. Neither did Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway or Shakespeare. But that doesn’t mean that most of us won’t benefit from a day’s workshop with a professional writer.
But what we can do from today is to use a basic, four step process that all professional writers use a variant of.
This process is this:
Sketch out a plan of what you are going to write, even if is is just a couple of bullet points noting the points that you must not miss, and the conclusion. Then when you start writing, you know where you are going.
Then write. The writing does not need to be perfect. Do not agonise over every word. Go from the starting point to the destination.
Review. This is often the longest part of the process. Have you made any mistakes? What could be improved? Does it say what you want it to say.
Now share it. Print it off. Hand it to a colleague. Ask if they understand it. You understand it because you know what you are trying to say. That doesn’t mean everyone else will. Listen to your colleague’s comments. Thank them. Offer to repay the favour. Make changes to your text.
If you can build this into your working routine, your writing will improve, no matter how good you are already.
Just about every writer on every newspaper in the world does this in a formal way, on a daily basis, so why shouldn’t you? Not only is it a good disciple, it can be contagious.