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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