Friday, March 05, 2010

Guest Post: Writing Like a Professional Will Get You Paid Like a Professional

Once in a while, we get an excellent guest blog submitted to us. This is one of those cases. Jay, a friend of mine, who just graduated law school and passed the bar, is someone I would classify as a "grammarian" (others may use the less politically correct term "grammar nazi"). He hates people's misuse of "your" and "you're" and of course "there", "their", and "they're". But while perfect writing is not required in any job, knowing how to write like a professional is a good way to get hired, to keep your job, and to advance. Here is some advice from Jay in our guest blog today:
I am a newly admitted attorney who graduated from law school less than one year ago. Lawyers, by definition, have been trained to write like professionals. This is one of the redeeming aspects of our profession, and I am proud to uphold this “tradition.”

Sadly, writing is not the art that it used to be. From the dawn of mankind until the early 1980’s, human beings wrote on surfaces ranging from stone walls to ordinary paper, using utensils ranging from granite rocks to ballpoint pens to typewriters. The common element among each of these formats is that those human beings had no room for error. There was no backspace key or pencil eraser or Wite-Out. Once that typewriter key was pressed, or that pen stroke was made, the words were – figuratively and often literally – set in stone. Consequently, writers were forced to choose their words very carefully.

Fast forward to the last couple of decades. The invention of the personal computer has revolutionized the way in which people write. The two biggest changes, in my opinion, are that we can write faster than ever before and that we can easily correct our mistakes. Admittedly, this faster pace of writing has lessened the strain on our bodies and our minds. The downside of this speed is that to avoid negating the time and trouble we have saved by using computers, we rush through the thinking process. Quite simply, because we can write quickly and correct our mistakes effortlessly, we write as the words and thoughts occur to us. For many people, the concept of “stream of consciousness” has transformed from an exercise in a high school English class into the primary way in which we communicate with other people.

Lots of modern norms have accelerated this change. Nobody writes a letter anymore; we write e-mails instead. Text messages have replaced handwritten notes and postcards. Blogs have replaced letters-to-the-editor. Twitter has replaced newspaper clippings. Communication has never been easier, and the end result is that people are writing more frequently and faster than ever. We are constantly looking for shortcuts to save even more time. The problem, however, is not how fast we write. No, the problem is how we write.
I believe that “AIM-speak” is just plain ugly. First used in instant messaging programs more than a decade ago, this style of writing has spread to modern e-mails and text messages. The words “you,” “because,” and “tonight” have become “u” and “cuz” and “2nite.” We are even too lazy to phrase the simple question, “What’s up?” anymore. Instead, we opt for the shorter “wsup?” These examples are just a few of the countless shortcuts people now use in contemporary English writing.

Needless to say, I find this laziness disgusting. It is sloppy and unprofessional. Computers already enable us to write at almost the same rate at which we think, so do we really have to shave off an extra millisecond by dropping the letters “y” and “o” when typing the word commonly written as “u”? If William Shakespeare saw us doing that, he would be very, very angry with us.

In my opinion, it is worth the extra time to write out each word as it appears in the dictionary. Quite honestly, there is little or no penalty associated with doing so. The time saved in using these language shortcuts is negligible, and the reward obtained by using proper grammar and spelling is considerable.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the law. Halfway through my first year of law school, I applied for a judicial internship with a Senior U.S. District Court judge in Hartford. Countless other law students at my law school applied for the same position, along with many students at other law schools in my region. I won the job, I later learned, almost entirely on the strength of my writing sample: an appellate brief I had drafted over a period of three weeks for my moot court class. While that job was an unpaid summer internship, I later obtained my first full-time job out of law school – a two-year clerkship with a different federal judge in the same courthouse – solely on the basis of the written materials I had produced for a law school professor while working as a research assistant. And sure enough, more than six months into this job, I have learned that the most important part of my job is drafting opinions for my judge that are written in proper English. Part of my job is to submit documents that do not contain any grammatical or spelling errors. The words must also flow and be sufficiently clear so that the reader can easily and quickly glean the information he or she seeks.

I should note that in my (admittedly limited) experience, I have found that you need not be brilliant to write in an organized, clear, and grammatically proper manner. You just have to take enough time to allow your thoughts to flow naturally. If you rush carelessly through the writing process, your words and sentences will appear sloppy and unprofessional.

Too often I see adults spew out e-mails and memoranda that appear to have been composed by someone typing while wearing mittens. I wonder how much time and energy those individuals put into their words. Sloppy prose reflects the care and attention (or lack thereof) that the author invested in its creation. As a lawyer, and particularly as a judge’s law clerk, I see this frequently. In a discovery dispute, for example, a lawyer will submit a series of e-mails in which the opposing counsel (allegedly) dragged his feet to delay discovery. The e-mails are meant to show the court how the other lawyer was non-responsive. But usually, I am more inclined to notice the poor English that the lawyers used in those communications. Incredibly, I have observed lawyers who were trained at Ivy League law schools use such words and expressions as “bc” and “thx.” If I were a client, I would refuse to pay my lawyer $400 per hour to write like a 7th grader.

The bottom line is that how you write says a lot about who you are as an employee. If you want to be treated like a professional, then you should write like one. Decades ago, scraps of paper containing handwritten notes were easily discarded, lost, or forgotten. Now, the vast majority of what we write is permanently recorded on the Internet, in someone’s phone, or in the recipient’s inbox. Every e-mail, every memorandum, every report is etched on a hard drive somewhere, waiting to be recalled at a moment’s notice. These things have your name written all over them. Many of these items can be Googled by future employers and co-workers. Future presidential candidates might even be mocked or grilled over the sloppy English they used decades ago as young professionals in their twenties.

My point is that if you write like you are an adolescent, people will treat you as such. Whether you are a lawyer or a journalist and therefore write for a living, or you are a doctor who claims that writing chicken scratch is “part of the job,” taking the time to write carefully and thoughtfully is a valuable investment. Sooner or later, people will notice that you express yourself intelligently and professionally, and that will pay major dividends. And why is the ability to write clearly, fluidly, and properly so valuable? Because so few people take the time to do so. Do yourself a favor and be one of those people.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! Great post. How true this is.


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