Is E-Mail Creating a Nation of Bad Writers?

September 27th, 2007 by Bob Bly

My theory has long been that the replacement of the telephone and face-to-face meetings by e-mail has increased the average American’s writing skills considerably, especially in business.

Reason: in the good old days, managers wrote few letters, because so much labor was involved.

Most didn’t keyboard, so they either wrote by hand or dictated.

The secretary would type the letter, which the manager edited with a red pen — and invariably, it would be typed and retyped 2 or 3 times before approved and mailed.

In my first corporate jobs, the secretaries were so busy, it would often take 2-3 days to get a letter in the mail using this process.

Today, virtually every manager has access to a keyboard … virtually every manager keyboards … and virtually every manager writes multiple e-mails daily.

Based on the notion that writing improves with practice, writing dozens of e-mails a week should turn you into a better writer.

But journalist Janet Malcolm thinks just the opposite is true.

“E-mail is a medium of bad writing,” she categorically states in an article in The New York Review of Books (9/27/07). “Poor word choice is the norm — as is tone deafness.”

She explains that, although e-mail may make us write a lot, most people don’t bother “to write a carefully worded, exclamation-point-free e-mail when the occasion demands.”

So what’s the answer?

Does the sheer amount of writing e-mail usage requires help us improve our writing?

Or is our writing just as bad as ever because people rush every e-mail they write and never take the time to make it good?

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 27th, 2007 at 7:41 am and is filed under General, Writing and the Internet. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

53 responses about “Is E-Mail Creating a Nation of Bad Writers?”

  1. Joel Heffner said:

    The problem, in my silly opinion, goes even deeper. I fear that many/most people are incapable of writing effectively. They never learned how to write. Writing more only helps if you keep improving your writing. Writing more doesn’t help if you make the same mistakes again and again. Perhaps going back to the old days would be good. Wouldn’t it be interesting if a business hired someone to proofread email before it was sent and force the sender to make revisions? Some clients have actually asked me to do just that to help them become better writers. It usually doesn’t take a person long to (drastically) improve their writing skills.

  2. Jodi Kaplan said:

    I agree Bob, and texting has exacerbated the problem. I’ve even seen large display ads in a bank asking, “R U :) ?”. It makes me cringe.

  3. Trisha said:

    While it can be annoying to receive these poorly written emails, the fact that so many people are showing their bad writing skills can be seen as a good thing.

    If good writers show off by providing a well-written email, they prove, in a way, their abilities. The more people there are that write badly, the more business good writers will get.

  4. Dianna Huff said:

    I would add that managers don’t “keyboard.” They “thumb.” Meaning, they write messages on their BlackBerries while doing something else, such as talking, eating, or driving — or all three concurrently.

  5. Bob Bly said:

    That would support Janet Malcolm’s contention that e-mail is inherently a medium of bad writing. You can talk and write at the same time, but when you do, you do neither one well. Writing as you know requires the full force of your concentration. Talking on a mobile device and driving at the same time is not safe, and in some states, illegal.

  6. Mike Braun said:

    r u serious??? OMG!

    Yes, that is the type of my writing my generation has become trained in. Between email, social networking, instant messaging, and text messaging, young people today are trained in the rules of bad writing. I predict that it will get worse in the future too. The attention span of people today is becoming shorter. Too short to even properly write a letter.

    yea im totly serious not jk LOL!!!

  7. Ted Grigg said:

    In the old days, many of the “secretaries” wrote letters for their bosses. They did a pretty good job compared to the boss’ writing.

    Most emails are poorly written. In fact, most of us would do better to pick up the phone because emails sound too harsh for most communications.

    Have you noticed how many corporate and political leaders don’t know how to communicate in writing. It’s amazing to me how they attain the levels they do lacking writing ability.

  8. Bob Bly said:

    Ted: I might suggest that we writers overstate the importance of writing in relation to overall success in life. There are in fact many skills as or more valuable, and so one can do very well in life without being a good writer. Politicians, for instance, typically hire writers rather than write their own speeches.

  9. Ted Grigg said:

    Bob,

    That’s true. But I do see many managers who are held back due to poor communication skills. (For the record, I am not a copywriter, but a direct marketing consultant).

    Poor writing ability shows an even greater weakness in my opinion. Writing capability correlates closely to reading ability. Voracious readers tend to write better than those who do not read regularly.

    Another relationship with good writing is the ability to communicate with the spoken word.

    Considering these interrelationships, writing skill seems pretty important in a leadership role.

  10. Philip McLean said:

    I don’t think that writing always improves with practice. I don’t think that anything always improves with practice, because if you practice doing it wrong, you’re just going to get really good at doing it wrong. There needs to be a desire to improve and a little coaching on how to do it right.

  11. Susan Martin said:

    Interesting dialogue on this one. I agree with a lot that’s been said. I’m not a writer but a business coach who values the importance of good communication skills.

    I have often received emails that aren’t clear, obviously done quickly and without much thought; sometimes requiring clarification, which wastes more time than was saved by not proofing your work to begin with.

    As the parent of a pre-teen, I cringe when I see how kids are communicating both in emails and with IM.

    If electronic communication in the business world is this poor already, what will happen when these kids who’ve been weaned on email and IM become adults?

  12. Len Morse said:

    I used to believe in the adage “If you do something long enough, you’ll get good at it,” but now I would tend to agree with Philip and Joel. There needs to be a desire to learn, whether it be writing or some other activity or subject. Add to that the inherent absence of inflection and tone in an email (unless you take the time to explain yourself, if necessary), and it is probably not at its peak.

    Some people are succinct writers, putting decent effort into anything they write. Most aren’t. Many businesspeople should probably put more effort into their word choice and tone, as Ms. Malcolm points out. Don’t be lazy, but don’t fill your reader’s screen with governmental gobble-dee-gook, either; just communicate effectively.

  13. Myles Saulibio said:

    Mahalo Bob!

    I agree with your introductory statement. The replacement F2F mtgs and telephone calls by e-mail has increased the average American’s writing skills considerably—as one method of writing skills development. But isn’t copywriting skills development about meeting people too, conversing informally, and developing a habit of writing the way I speak?
    Personally, I like the high tech/high touch combined approach. It’s all about achieving balance–Email (high tech) and conversing then writing (high touch).
    How else can I develop a talent for copywriting?
    Ok—enough talking on my keyboard.
    Aloha!
    Myles Saulibio

  14. Susanna K. Hutcheson said:

    As someone who collects fountain vintage fountain pens and uses French writing paper, I must confess I appreciate well-written letters and documents of the old school. Frankly, a lot of email I get offends me.

    The writing is horrible. And people take liberties in email that would never be taken in person or in a paper letter. “Hey Susanna,” one starts. Hey? How crude is that. And do they know me well enough to call me by my first name? Do they know me at all?

    Email should be written like you would write a paper letter. I try (and sometimes fail) to write an email that is business-like and friendly but not too familiar. When I write a prospective client, I don’t take liberties. Once I know the person better and they get to know me, we generally write shorter emails and can drop the formalities. A short, one-line email doesn’t require a Dear John and a signature.

    I think general rules of etiquette apply in email. After all, your email is making an impression just as a paper letter would.

    Susanna

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  17. Dave Coyne said:

    I agree with Joel. The vast majority of people using email are not professional communicators. Many of us who post to this blog are involved in the communications business. We place importance on writing well, and are more likely to continue to learn on improving our craft.

    But for the majority, few are interested in spending time learning to be better writers. They can write a 100 emails a day, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to discover the difference between “its” and “it’s.” It takes more than just the process of writing to become good at writing.

  18. Jamie R Lentzner said:

    I am actually surprised by the amount of bad emails I receive. The more I write (and blog) I think my writing gets better. My all time favorite is people that keep the CAPS key on and send the entire email like that – um, you are YELLING at me. How is it in this day and age no one knows that? And really is spell check that hard to find in your email program?

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  22. Daniel C. said:

    E-mail does encourage people to be less formal, just because it’s so instantaneous and frequent. It would be ridiculous if I said “Dear Mr. X” etc, when I’m sending an e-mail to Mr. X is every ten minutes. I do put more thought and time into my e-mails then most people, and treat it as if it were an internal memo. People who know how to write can write good e-mails.

    Mobile texting and the like are much more problematic, since there the nature of the medium makes good writing difficult, even undesirable (if there’s a character limit).

    In social media, people tend to express themselves poorly, maybe because there’s no reason to care much what complete strangers think; it’s more about being heard. I agree with Susanna’s comment that people take liberties that they wouldn’t dare attempt in person. Maybe the lack of face-to-face interaction takes away that responsiveness we normally have to other people’s sensibilities.

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