A close friend recently asked me if I thought writing is a lost art.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Mostly,” she said, “because all I see these days are people writing on social media, in short bursts, with multiple typos, poor grammar, and no rigor to the thoughtfulness of the message.”
Having still not answered her question, I thought for a little bit, mostly about why I personally like to write.
“No,” I answered. “I don’t believe writing is a lost art. I believe the leadership principle of reflection is a lost art.”
“Interesting”, was my friend’s reply. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well,” I said, “if I think back on the business books I have written, and the recent novel that I published, the true precipice of my writing was to practice the lean leadership principle of reflection. In order to write thoughtfully, you need to put yourself in a quiet place, you need to unplug, you need to assemble your disconnected thoughts on paper, then analyze and synthesize these thoughts in order to package them in such a way that a stranger can understand the lessons and concepts that you are trying to communicate. And often when I’m writing, I reread what I’ve written, and I realize that my thoughts are not even clear in my own mind. This forces me to work at it again – with sleeves rolled up – in order to truly understand what I’ve learned as a leader relative to the concepts I am writing about. This is not always easy. However, to quote Snoopy from Charlie Brown, ‘I am a great admirer of my own writing’, so this allows me to soldier on.[…]
For me, writing creates an effective environment for true reflection.
What is your process?”
Michel Baudin‘s comments: Robert Martichenko came to my attention back in 2005, as co-author of the second book on Lean Logistics. Mine was first, by a few weeks, and it’s been a friendly rivalry. As of this morning, on Amazon, mine has 10 reviews and ranks 4.8 out of 5 stars, while his has 6 reviews and ranks 4.7. But his book is cheaper and his sales rank is higher. A few years after both books came out, a seminar organizer for Robert liked the subtitle of my book, “the nuts and bolts of delivering materials and goods,” so much that he used it in a promotional flyer, for which Robert duly apologized.
Email, text messaging, and social media have made writing and publishing easier than ever and, if more people write, by definition, you can’t say that writing is a lost art. It is changing but it’s not dying. While texting, we encounter new words like “LOL” and learn new rules, for example, that ending a message with a period is aggressive.
When reading, I am more concerned with clarity and logic than with grammar and typos. Many languages, including English, have arbitrary rules for spelling and grammar that primarily serve to classify people by level of education and have little to do with the ability to communicate. The real question for me about others’ writings is whether I understand them and whether they make sense.
When writing, on the other hand, I use every tool I can get my hands on to eliminate spelling and grammatical errors. English is not my native tongue; I started learning it as a teenager. I still speak it with a “vaguely foreign accent,” and work to make sure that at least my writing is accent-free. The bulk of my published work has been in English, a language I have come to love for its unique conciseness. “Cold Drinks” is two syllables; the Russian equivalent, as seen on a vending machine in Moscow is “Kholodnyye napitki,” seven syllables. English lets you say more with fewer, shorter words.
When Robert says “the true precipice of my writing,” I suspect he intended to use another word than “precipice.” I can’t imagine how the practice of reflection could be the brink of anything. I suspect an overeager spellchecker replaced with another word with “precipice” but I fail to guess his intent.
To answer his question, how does my process differ from his? I noted that he describes writing as the means and reflection as the end, and not the other way around. I grew up wanting to be a writer, and have always valued writing above all other human endeavors. Not many Americans feel that way. Celebrities treat it as a task you can delegate and claim authorship of ghostwritten books. You hear comments like “Anybody can write a book” from people who haven’t and couldn’t.
If you care what you put your name on, writing a book is hard work, and the book itself is not its only result. It helps Robert reflect; it helps me learn. Early in my career, I was part of the development team of a Product Data Management (PDM) module that was about 10 years ahead of its time, when the task of training its first users on short notice fell to me, even though I had not been working on it. Someone had to go, and I didn’t refuse.
I read the scant documentation available, tried using the system, and flew off to the two most embarrassing days of my professional life. The users knew more about the system than I did, and I returned with a long list of questions I had not been able to answer. That’s when I decided to put my other projects on hold and write the user manual for this module, which took me about two months. By the time I was done, not only did the users have their answers, but I knew all the details.
Like technical writing in general, that manual was of value to a group of people, and of no interest to anyone else. Later, when writing books, I always started with an audience in mind. Lean Assembly, for example, is for professionals who design, operate, or improve assembly operations; Lean Logistics, for professionals in departments called Materials Management, Supply Chain Management, or Production Control; Working With Machines, for professionals in shops where work involves interactions between humans and machines.
Those were all subjects on which I felt I had some knowledge to share when I started writing but had learned much more by the time I was finished. Plugging gaps in logic and anticipating questions from my audience had made me research the topics more thoroughly than I had before.
Like Robert, I need a quiet space in which to work uninterrupted, but it doesn’t mean unplugging, because most of the reference materials I use are online, and I rarely start by putting anything on paper. The only handwritten materials I use are meeting notes, document annotations, sketches on cocktail napkins, and snapshots of whiteboards. I have not drafted a document in longhand for decades. It all goes straight to the screen.
Authors save time and retain better control over the final product when they generate it directly with the software tools publishers use to edit text and illustrations, lay out pages, generate tables of contents and indexes, etc. It makes it easier for reviewers to provide feedback and cuts months out of the time needed to get a book released electronically or in print once it is finished. The only area where I have felt the help of third-party specialists was indispensable is cover design. But this is a whole other topic.