I am old enough to remember when work was not about sending and receiving email. When Kim and I founded The Harp Column in 1993, our business was done on the telephone and by writing letters. In fact one of the first things we had to do was design a logo so we could get letterhead printed. Although email certainly existed — I think I had my first email address in 1992, maybe — it was much more of a novelty and there was no expectation that everyone had an address.
This meant that the telephone was all-important and that making and receiving calls was a major part of the day. In fact many people bemoaned the decline of writing skills brought on by the ease of picking up the phone to communicate. The telephone was, in fact, tyrannical. If you were serious about your business you did not want to miss a call, and we went to great lengths to make sure we paid the phone company for voicemail service and processed it carefully. My phone greeting — “Good (morning|
afternoon) The Harp Column, may I help you?” — still rolls off my tongue 25 years later.
So, I’m glad that we’ve returned to writing as our primary means of business communication. Despite the overwhelming volume of mail we all get, I would still rather craft a sentence or two than have a phone conversation. What surprises me is how much writing actually dominates my work. All my most productive time is spent writing or editing other people’s writing, and in fact in the better meetings I’m in I am writing too (if you can describe my crappy note-taking as writing). It’s strange to think that the simple act of putting words on paper or a screen should be considered work, but it is, and if you’re a manager it’s the most important kind.
At some point in graduate school I latched onto the idea that in fact thought does not exist without language, and therefore thoughts as discrete things do not exist until they are written down, and in fact thoughts change and improve as they are being written. (This is why the term “wordsmithing” drives me crazy — the implication that written thoughts can be clarified later by someone who happens to be “good with words” is an indication of laziness on the part of the original author. What it really says to me is “We haven’t really worked out what we mean to say here so we’re going to punt it to some poor hack who wasn’t in the original conversation.”)
So writing is in fact thinking, and if your work is thinking — i.e. if you are a “knowledge worker” — then your work is writing, and the better your writing is, the better your work is.
Now, remind me again why we’re not teaching English any more?