Three years ago, when we were just starting Wufoo, if you had asked me what skill I would’ve liked to have had instantly downloaded into my brain Matrix-style to help us succeed, I probably would have chosen something industry specific like advanced PHP, CSS, or database knowledge. Most of our early challenges were, for the most part, technical and since there was only three of us for those first few years, it would have been nice to have had some god-mode programming skills to help us avoid some of the more time consuming re-writes and workarounds we’ve had to endure.

Now, if you were to give me the same choice today, I probably wouldn’t choose anything specific to technology. I would ask to have inserted into my brain the oft neglected and under appreciated art of Kung-Fu writing well. This isn’t because technology is any less important to our company—we are a software company after all. It’s because I’ve noticed that when a company reaches a certain level of maturity, the business seems to always require just as much communication, both written and verbally, as it does technical innovation.

We’ve been fortunate to have Kevin on hand, who has a literary and editorial background, to help us craft our blog posts, support emails, newsletters, documentation, and presentations over the last few years. And while it’s nice to have that safety net, I believe that when your long term success depends on communication with employees, audiences, partners, and customers, everybody, especially those in leadership positions, need to be able to communicate with people as well as they do with computers. Roy Jacobsen said it best recently on his blog, Writing, Clear and Simple:

“The words you use, either written or spoken, can have powerful effects on your audience‚—if you use them carefully and skillfully. Whether your goal is to inform, to persuade, to call for action, or to entertain, your words and your stories can be powerful. They can be powerful, because language is software for the mind.”

Since most of my adulthood has been spent coding and communicating with computers, my writing, or software for the mind skills, have unfortunately taken a bit of a backseat. Only so much progress can really be made when you don’t take a dedicated approach to learning a new skill, and the default level of writing that goes into a normal day’s work just doesn’t cut it. So in an effort to beef up my writing skills and grow alongside the business, I’ve decided to give my writing the love and attention it desperately needs. There are a number of resources I’ve found useful over the last couple of months, and if you also are looking to improve your writing and, like me, don’t have access to the Matrix, they might be worth a glance.

  • Elements of Style - As the introduction states, writing is about saying something concisely, clearly, and worthwhile. This 90 year-old book is still one of the most highly recommended resources by writers, and its tips on the fundamentals of writing are always worth having close by.

  • - Poynter focuses primarily on the art of journalism, which is extremely valuable if you want to understand how the media wants to craft a story. Their web site contains a boatload of best practices and tips for journalists, including bloggers, of all areas and on all topics.

  • The New York Times - Grammar and Usage - There are a bunch of articles and resources available here, but I always like to keep an eye on the After Deadline section where you can see the mistakes that some of the pros made and how they were corrected.

  • The Economist Style Guide - The style guide given to the journalists at one of my favorite reading spots, The Economist.

  • Guide to Grammar and Style - From A to Z, this site goes through a listing of words and phrases that are commonly used, but oftentimes misunderstood.

  • Guide to Grammar & Writing - Yes, the site looks a little childish, but if you’ve forgotten what a parenthetical element or predeterminer actually are, this basic grammar guide can help refresh your aging memory.

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Chris Campbell

The Importance of Writing Well by Chris Campbell

This entry was posted 2 years ago and was filed under Notebooks.
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  1. Alex Leonard · 2 years ago

    I’m so glad to hear people talking about this. I get so frustrated by poor sentence construction and emails that appear to have been sent by an illiterate monkey - which is something that seems to happen with alarming frequency.

    Having run my own web design business for the past four or five years, I’ve often been amazed by just how much time is spent on communication instead of the actual ‘building’ of a website. Certainly my use of a time-tracking application has shown that pretty consistently email is one of the main applications in which I spend time.

    This article jumped out at me from my feed reader partially due to an email I received from my mother only yesterday. She sent a link to this -

    • which discusses the possibility that these times of recession are making people realise that they need to appear a little more professional, and that as a result, emails which we’re succumbing to the lure of “txtspk” are now being correctly punctuated, signed, and constructed.

    Language is an art, and long may it last.

  2. TarunK · 2 years ago

    Very well said. People do not care what they write and how they write. I am also a programmer and since I have been involved in lot of documentation, I realized that writing skill is very important. I have been recommended a very good book by someone I know who has read this book and speaks very highly about it. The name of the book is “Style Towards Clarity and Grace” by Joseph M. Williams from the publisher of The Chicago Manual of Style. Amazon link:

  3. Peter Cooper · 2 years ago

    I totally agree with the sentiment but strongly disagree with the provided resources. Studying style guides to learn how to write well is like studying the syntax of a language to learn how to build good algorithms. There’s a connection, but it’s missing the point.

    To me, the art of “writing well” is split into two parts. Firstly, yes, you have syntax, grammar and spelling - the “technicalities” of the task. These are less important than.. the actual message. There’s enough technically fine but dull and easily ignored text out there. To be successful, the words must first mean something to the reader and be able to inspire them to read on - learning syntax and style is not going to help with that at all.

    Unfortunately, writing what the reader wants to read can be both very easy and very difficult. It’s very easy if you have the ability to get out of your own head and place yourself into the readers’ shoes, but some people find that, in itself, difficult. This is essential before you start thinking about style though - otherwise you’ll be to English what a code monkey is to programming.

  4. Roy Jacobsen · 2 years ago

    Chris, First, thanks for the link and the kind words for my blog post.

    I sometimes think that there should be a 12-step program for writing, where step one is that people have to admit that they have a problem. I’ve seen surveys where people will say that most of the writing in their field is bad, but they think their own writing is fine.

    Two of the most important things you can do to improve your writing (besides reading things like the resources you listed) are: 1. Recognize that good writing always involves rewriting. Remember what Hemingway said. ( 2. Practice, practice, practice. (You don’t become a good coder by reading about it, you develop the skill by doing it. The same applies to writing.)

  5. David · 2 years ago

    I couldn’t agree more with the points made in this post. Writing well has become a lost art. This is partly due to stances like Peter takes where the focus is on the “message” and the “technicalities” are primarily dismissed. The fact is that if I can’t read your message because its poor technically, I will miss the message. I had to read Peter’s comment 3 times because it was poor technically. Mine probably is too, but I understand that it is a problem.

  6. Chris Campbell · 2 years ago

    Peter,, The NY Times, and Elements of Style all deal with how to write effectively.

  7. Abbas · 2 years ago

    Wonderful post. Lately, I have been focusing intently on improving writing skills. Your post is timely. Some of the books that I found helpful are ‘Elements of Style’, ‘Styling sentences’, and ‘Writer’s Reference’. There are other handy ones whose names I do not remember off-hand.

  8. MikeP · 2 years ago

    I can’t take issue with much of this, except this bit: “… when your long term success depends on communication with employees, audiences, partners, and customers, everybody, especially those in leadership positions …”

    That’s an unnecessary condition. When does your long term success not depend on these sorts of communication? You could say that it’s more important for “customer facing” types, but picture this: customer facing type takes a question from a customer and doesn’t know the answer. So he asks somebody in the back hall, who provides a typical techie answer - loaded with jargon and rambling sentences. The CF type re-interprets, and passes it on to the customer in clearly written prose that misses the point entirely. Now the customer’s annoyed because her question isn’t answered, or worse, it’s answered incorrectly.

    That’s just one example, but I could think of others - I’ve run into a bunch, and I’m sure you the reader has as well.

  9. MikeP · 2 years ago

    Oh, and I can’t recommend William Zinsser, On Writing Well, enough.

  10. isolde · 2 years ago

    If Barack Obama had poor writing and speaking skills, would he have won the presidency? While it’s true that the previous president was the worst in recent memory and his party (as well as McCain) were dragged down because of the past 8 years, I don’t think Obama would have done as well if he had not been as eloquent.

  11. David Alan Preston-Earley · 2 years ago

    Who determines what is good writing and is not. In a world where every thing seems to be based (rightly so) on what is politically correct and regarded as fair comments to a particular article or issue. Most of us prefer to communicate in a way that is clear and concise and in a way we have been brought up. Brought up in a mining community (by heck that’s blomming good matey)we were lucky to have any education I remember leaving school at 15 not being able to read or write, playing at catch up in (a literate) based world I often think how important it is to communicate in the right way and at the right time without offending other people. Respond!

  12. Jenny · 2 years ago

    It is so refreshing to have people understand the importance of writing on the web. People wouldn’t stand to read a book that had poor grammar and spelling mistakes, however people think it acceptable to have it online. The biggest resource for information is the internet, yet there are so many sites that the writing skills are poor. This may be down to the fast lives we all lead now, but people still - I think- like to see time and thought has gone into something that has been written by someone whose taken the care to spell check their work.

  13. Roger · 2 years ago

    Nice write-up and good content keep writing.

  14. Vim · 2 years ago

    100% agree with the post, however everyone has different writing styles.

  15. John · 2 years ago

    That should be “The Importance of Writing GOOD”!

    Ha ha. Just kidding. I have an idea for another related, but different article. The importance of learning type. I’ve seen so many developers and html guys who still hunt-and-peck using only their pointy fingers. And guess what…they get less done in the same amount of time as the ones who can type properly. No surprises there. Anyhow…it’s just a thought.

  16. Jesse · 2 years ago

    Nice article, for some reason our nations literacy rate is dropping at an alarming rate, now online I see some of the worst writing. It’s refreshing when you see a well written piece, thanks for the post. (or as the kids say thx 4ur pst.

  17. Jason · 2 years ago

    I just started blogging for a friend for his website and I am trying to remember all those rules for writing. Some great resources.