Does writing well still matter?

In the age of Twitter, how important is word craft? Some argue it doesn’t matter as much while others maintain it’s as critical as ever.

The question sometimes nags at the wordsmiths who love the feel of their fingers on the keyboard.

In the age of flip cameras and Yammer and Twitter tweets full of hash marks and perplexing abbreviations, does good writing matter in the way it used to for communicators?

Sure, people will always be stringing words together. But have writing skills declined in importance when you can post video of a CEO’s remarks on a corporate blog rather than write up a piece for the newsletter? And are those kids with the dazzling technical skills writing worse these days?

Liam FitzPatrick, head of practice at Bell Pottinger Change and Internal Communications in the U.K., stirred up a series of Web denunciations this year after he posted a blog item argumentatively titled, “Who cares about writing skills?

Having waved a red flag in front of the bulls of Pamplona, FitzPatrick bravely held his ground in a recent interview from London. He’s not arguing for sloppy writing. Rather, he insists, writing is just a subset of skills needed to communicate, and other abilities are more important in planning the message or gathering feedback for top bosses.

Results matter more

Yet some old-timers, he says, may be resisting “the reality that writing doesn’t matter in the corporate sense in the way it used to. Once upon a time, being a good writer made you king of the corporate coms department. Nowadays, being able to get results matters more.”

Others insist on the primacy of wordsmithing. Tamara L. Gillis, professor of communications at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, says writing ranked as the top skill in demand in a study she made of 514 job descriptions for the International Association of Business Communicators last year. This ran across the continuum from entry-level press release scribblers up to senior management.

Yet if writing is so critical, she says, there is a disconnect in the way education prepares students. Often new students’ writing isn’t up to par.

“You’ve got this digital device in your hand,” Gillis tells her students, “and you have to be able to write coherently to communicate with each other, whether it’s an e-mail or text or tweeting. You’ve got to be able to say what you want to say in a very succinct and clear way in 140 characters. And it would be best if you didn’t have to use OMG or BFF to get your point across.”

Author Fraser Seitel discusses the importance of good writing in public relations.

Texting as ‘gateway drug’

But all that texting and tweeting helps young writers develop, says Sharon L. Butler, a professor in the digital art and design program at Eastern Connecticut State University. Texting serves as a “gateway drug” that lures students deeper into writing through blogging and other social media tools. In doing so, they develop a deeper sense of voice than they would have simply cranking out term papers.

“Rather than leading to a decline in writing skills, I see [texting and social media] as competing with conversation and particularly phone conversation,” she says. “It’s phone conversation that’s actually on the decline, rather than writing.”

A ProfNet query on the topic brought the cavalry over the hills in defense of writing—but also, from a few, laments about its diminishment as a tool of the trade.

Patricia Vaccarino, managing partner at Xanthus Communications, insists that good writing is the foundation of good PR. Those who can’t write well cannot craft a good story or serve their clients’ best interests.

“Social media has only created a new form of stenography to route and to channel information,” she states. “‘Social media stenography’ will not change the fundamentals of high-quality writing any more than Gregg’s shorthand eliminated the need to write a formal letter.”

A two-line intro and a video clip

But Ryan McCormick of Goldman & McCormick Public Relations in New York says the rise of social media has gutted the infrastructure of compelling writing.

“You can’t communicate a fraction of a story in 160 words, yet today’s short-attention-span media consumers demand it and the press knows it,” he writes. “A well written press release used to make the difference of a story getting ink, but now producers want a two-line intro to your client and a video clip of them.”

The only area that hasn’t been dramatically affected by this trend is print, he says, but newspapers are a dying breed.

Hope Katz Gibbs, president of Inkandescent Public Relations in Arlington, Va., argues that if a message isn’t delivered in an articulate, interesting way, there’s no reason to say anything. “That’s why I have several copy editors look at all of our work before it goes out into the world—from press releases and articles to social media messages,” she states. “Writing well is the key to everyone’s success.”

Some insist that new technologies change writing, but not its importance. Matthew Maguire, senior counselor for public affairs at Eric Mower and Associates in Albany, N.Y., says the challenge of Twitter—”saying something in tight quarters”—should be a fundamental technique. But writing to length is a skill too few communications professionals master.

“We white-hairs can succumb briefly to the temptation to kids-these-days kvetching,” Maguire says. “When that’s out of our system, we must learn from them.”

No substitute for clarity

Don Ranly, a writing guru and professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism, is one of those who weighed in on FitzPatrick’s blog musings. In a phone interview, he added that a company will “look like idiots if there isn’t somebody writing decent copy.”

“If the head of corporate communications cannot deal with what is left of the press and real journalism,” he says, “if we cannot write what could be, should be, a good press release that’s clear and precise and transparent and without fluff and crap, I just think, what good are we to that company? All the tweeting and that stuff simply cannot substitute for that.”

FitzPatrick, however, suggests it might be interesting to examine the bottom-line performance of companies that win awards for their publications. He suspects there is no correlation between slick copy and financial success.

“No corporation says, ‘You know what, we need some great writers,'” FitzPatrick says. “What every corporation says is, ‘You know what, we need good communications.’ And writing is a subset of communication. Don’t start the journey with the technique. Start the journey with the outcome.”

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