The Little Things We Write

The Thursday May 31st edition of #WrMatters featured a discussion of the short messages that dominate our work days.

Writing EmailWe’re all professional writers throughout our working day as we jot down to-do lists, create status updates, tweet, draft headlines, and of course respond to email. Most of us on the chat realized how important the Writing Cycle can be, particularly with email. The early stages of the Writing Cycle are vital to our success. When we pause to jot down a few ideas before responding, we see a dramatic increase in the effectiveness of our messages.

Shakirah also suggests putting an email draft aside if she finds that she’s hesitating or stalling. Kemya will take the time to write a draft of an email and review it later.

However when it comes to the later stages of the Writing Cycle, we agreed that we could pay more attention to editing and proofreading. Technology allows us to send messages so quickly that even if we take the time to brainstorm a message, the impulse is still to hit the “send” button without always taking that extra few seconds. I know that I myself accidently insulted a client recently when all I meant to say was it was nice to speak with you toady (note the misspelling).

Most of us are using the save draft function in our email program. But personally I find almost every internet platform to be restrictive or inhibiting. Whenever I’m confronted with the Facebook question what’s on your mind or the LinkedIn prompt to share your status update, if I’m on a blog that’s asking me to comment, or if I’m inside of my email program, the physical layout the page colors, graphics, and animation page prevent me from composing my thoughts with the flow to which I’m accustomed.

So anything more than 2 sentences, I draft in a blank Word document and then cut and paste into whatever internet platform I’m using. This also has the advantage of allowing me to recognize when I’m writing messages on similar topics so that I can save those message into various swipe files that I maintain on topics like the evolution of the English language, or the benefits of handwriting versus typing, or differences between British English and American English.

I find that I’m more likely to recognize that I’m having a conversation about one of those topics if I’m writing in Word, the same platform I was in the last time I had that conversation. Whereas if I had that conversation the last time on LinkedIn and now I’m on someone’s blog, the physical layout of the page may not jog my memory and I might not save those notes.

Unfortunately we discovered in our chat that very few of us use our smaller writing messages as ways of practicing the writing skills that we know we need to improve. Headline writing is a particularly good place to try this. Writing 5-6 headlines rapidly can be a great way to think about the different members of your audience and how they might perceive a product, an issue, or a topic that you’re addressing. Also regularly writing short messages can help you improve your overall speed and flow.

Bored Woman

Sometimes those little messages can get a little repetitive, even - dare I say? - boring.

One danger in writing small messages is that they can start to become repetitive and feel canned. Some writers even have boilerplate language that they use to respond to messages of a certain type. Most of us agreed that boilerplate should only be used in certain, very limited circumstances, mostly when dealing with a new client or colleague about whom we knew very little.

Although we agreed that the boilerplate that LinkedIn uses as an introduction is irritating, we discovered from one of our participants that some of the mobile apps don’t allow alterations to the LinkedIn invite. I think we all walked away from the session feeling a little more charitable towards those of our LinkedIn colleagues whom we might previously have condemned as networking newbies.

In parting, I think most of us realized that while we spend a lot of time and effort on big documents that we produce, our daily work is comprised of those small touch points we compose every day, and we could all benefit from paying more careful attention to the little things that we write. Those tiny messages are the ones on which our success or our failure depends, both as business people and also as colleagues in our expanding network of communications.

So I’ll leave us with the same parting thought that I gave to the group, and that’s a quote from one of my favorite radio DJs, Andrew Loog Oldham, former manager of the Rolling Stones – be careful of the careless word.

We’ll hope to see you again on Thursday, June 14, at 4pm ET when we meet to talk about proofreading and editing. What’s your process? What terrible mistakes have you seen or made? And how do you think we can all do a better job of correcting ourselves and others? We’ll see you on Twitter for #WrMatters, because communication is key!



  1. Hi Michelle,
    A lasting lesson I learned from my writing course with you was to take a few moments to re-read what I have written. It’s easy to forget this when the message is very very short.
    One extra little problem is the closeness of the iPhone’s ‘SEND’ button to the keyboard letters “I,O,P” and all to many times the message leaves the phone before it’s been checked.
    There’s also the dratted irritation of the predictive text which changes a perfectly sane sentence to something unintelligible. If we don’t re-read the message, we don’t see it.

    • Julia – What another great thought – drafting short messages on the phone definitely makes it harder to proofread and edit. For me, I do a lot of that outdoors or in the car (as a passenger, of course!) The lighting makes it tough to read the screen. And frankly, spell check makes the problem worse! It always tries to change my logical abbreviations (haha) into something bizarre.

  2. And I didn’t see “all to many times” before I sent this so please use your editor’s red pen and change it to ‘all too many times”. Thanks. Julia

  3. Ron Scheurer says

    I am in the habit of having Word and my internet connection on the screen side by side. I cut and paste the internet note into Word, write my response below that, check it for completeness and accuracy, then cut and paste the response back into the comments online. It helps to prevent missed words and the presumed understandings of quickly recorded thoughts. Not foolproof, but it does help.

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