Read it and weep

Sometimes I wonder about people. How can someone who is smart, good at his job, and generally articulate fail dismally when it comes to written communication? I’ve seen emails, white papers, formal correspondence, you name it that leave me scratching my head. I just can’t figure out what the writer is trying to say. What gives?

I think there are a few different forces at work here. First, I think the fluidity of expressing oneself via computer keyboard lends itself to error. That is, we can make corrections much more easily on screen than on a typewriter or in handwriting, so we write and rewrite. In that process, we often overlook adjectives and articles that applied to a former expression which ultimately didn’t make the cut. We change the money words, but forget to clean up the pocket change.

Second, people often overthink when they put something in writing. Instead of employing simple, straightforward expressions–being clear and direct–they over-describe. This often results in the misuse of vocabulary or convoluted phraseology. All the twists and turns lay the path to misunderstanding.

On the flip side, sometimes people don’t think enough. They write in a stream-of-consciousness pattern that can work in speech but falls far short in the written word. People can’t follow, and there’s no one around to interpret for them.

Fortunately, there is one simple trick that address all of these issues: read your stuff. Before you hit send or print or publish, take a few extra minutes to read through what you’ve just written, preferably out loud. I can’t count the number of times this has saved me from screwing up. I also can’t count the number of times when I didn’t do this and I did screw up. What I’ve learned is that if I stumble when reading my own material (even a simple email), my reader is likely to do an all-out face plant.

I understand that not everyone is a writer. People have gifts in different areas. But regardless of how someone is gifted, everyone wants to be understood. So when you write something, read it and weep. And then fix it.

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