Harder Than It Looks?

I have a good friend whose son is a gifted young computer programmer; he seems to instinctively understand complex equations and willingly spends hours stringing together code to animate a computer game or function. But writing doesn’t come so naturally for him, and although he struggles with his English courses, he dismisses most offers of help or constructive criticism. The way he sees it, he’s been speaking and reading English his whole life, so writing in English should be a snap.

I’ve heard many people express such ideas, and I can understand where they are coming from. The way they see it, they talk to people every day and have no problem expressing themselves, so why should putting ideas on paper (or in a digital file) be any harder?

But the way I see it, writing—even in your native language—is harder than it looks. When you’re talking with someone, your words are just one of the ways you communicate. You can fill in missing phrases with gestures, imply meaning with your tone of voice and eyes, backtrack to elaborate on a point. And probably most importantly, the response from your listeners lets you know immediately whether or not you are being understood. Their questions or comments give you a chance to re-emphasize important points or provide information that you may have neglected.

Writing is communication without props. If you employ ambiguous terms or phrases, readers cannot rely on tone of voice or hand signals to pick out your true meaning. If your sentences do not move from idea to idea in a logical progression, readers cannot ask for clarification or more information.

Communicating ideas or information in written form requires more than just knowledge of the language or the subject matter. And I think my young friend and others like him might find the first step to being a better writer comes by recognizing that good writing requires more knowledge and skill than needed for a satisfying conversation. It may not be computer science, but it’s not baby talk either.

In future posts, I’ll try to offer some writing pointers that the technically inclined might find useful.

January 28, 2011

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