My youngest son, who is beginning his second year in law school, was, over the summer, a “summer associate” in a big NYC law firm. It wasn’t his first brush with the business/corporate world, but he made an observation to me about writing on the job recently that I thought was interesting and worth passing along.
He said he’d never had to write so many email. And the email he wrote tended to be long, involved “legal briefs” on topics of interest to the big non-profit group that was his summer client.
I asked him if the people at the law firm and at the non-profit group liked his writing. (I consider him to be a very strong writer—more skilled at writing than I am, actually.) He said he heard the obligatory “thank you” for doing the work. He said he was told by the client that the information he provided was helpful. But that was about it in terms of people voicing their appreciation.
He sent me a couple of the email briefs when I asked to see what he was writing. I thought they were quite amazing. The content he provided was complex, pertinent, and comprehensive. He organized the information logically. His style was clear, even when he was discussing legal ideas and regulations that were complex to the lay reader—the non-profit group he worked with were certainly not lawyers, though they were very intelligent people with lots of initials after their names.
So what he told me that I found interesting was that, on the one hand, he didn’t expect to hear anything unless the reader/user of the information suggested additions, deletions, or amendments—and, over the summer, he got a few of those directives, which he took in stride. But on the other hand, he said he didn’t realize how important writing was (specifically his email legal briefs) in showing who you were to your supervisors, bosses, and co-workers. He said he never realized how much you’re judged by your work product.
He told me he spent lots of time making sure every email was the best he could make it. He worried about the content and organization and about the spelling of every word, the clarity of every sentence, the correctness of each mark of punctuation before he hit SEND—knowing that he’d be as valuable to his client and his legal office as his writing was.
So there’s the power of writing. It conveys useful information—or it gets deleted quickly. But it also is an extension of who we are in the workplace and reflects how we want to be seen by those we work with.
When I teach writers in any workplace how to think about writing more productively, I always say that workplace writing is 90% about the content and only 10% about the presentation. It’s like a window in a building: 90% about what you can see out of it and only 10% about the actual glass and molding. That’s so different from the writing we did for our teachers in college. They seemed to care a lot about the presentation—the glass. The content—what we were saying—was almost an afterthought.
In the workplace, readers HATE to be bothered by having to read anything. So the writing that intrudes on their time must be useful and highly readable. In the writing training we do, we ask participants to begin judging all the writing they must read—from email, to tweets, to blog posts, to reports, etc., using two standards for their judgment:
1. Does the writing keep the reader’s level of interest HIGH?
2. Does it keep the reader’s level of effort LOW?
If the answer to either question is NO, then the writing is failing in some important way.
Given what my son observed about writing as a work product by which we’re heavily judged by all who read it, let me add one stipulation to my idea that workplace writing is 90% about the CONTENT and only 10% about the PRESENTATION: IF THE PRESENTATION IS BAD, THAT 10% WILL SINK THE WHOLE SHIP.
So take care when you write. Give your readers the content they need as fully, as clearly, and as correctly as you can. It’s true that workplace writing is 90% about the content, but the presentation—though we seek to make it as invisible, as unobtrusive as we can—is critical to making sure the reader can access and navigate the all-important content easily.