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The Importance of Writing
by Jim Lengel, Education and Technology Consultant, 04/24/2006

Employers complain that recent graduates lack writing skills. State and local assessment systems struggle to set standards and judge results of students' written works. Almost nobody writes letters any more. Instead they talk on the telephone, watch the television, and listen to music on those ubiquitous white earbuds. The quantity and quality of contemporary written communication is fast flowing down the tubes of mindless entertainment devices.

So goes the current lament. If only we could go back to the days when people wrote letters to each other, preferably in longhand on scented paper, and when business was carried out through formal correspondence with proper envelopes and stamps and filing cabinets, then the writing skill of the population would resume its former status. So hope the traditionalists with their eyes in the rear-view mirror.

But those who are looking ahead down the road see a different trend, a new curve in the road that may turn us toward a renaissance of the written word, a triumph of text, a return to writing. We have known for centuries that written communication tends to be more thoughtful, more concise, more careful, and more efficient that the mere spoken words that emerge seemingly without benefit of reason from our mouths. And yet we have maintained in our schools and colleges an oral culture of communication -- we speak and listen in our classrooms much more often than we write and read.

The reason for this reliance on the ear and the mouth rather than the eye and the hand may be due to the late arrival of the tools of writing and publishing on the human scene. We spoke and listened for tens of thousands of years before we wrote and read, and for most of the thousand or so years of written culture the methods for putting your thoughts to paper (or parchment) and of making copies for others to read was beyond the skill and affordability of most people.

An article this week in The New York Times (a bastion of exemplary writing), I.M. Generation is Changing the Way Business Talks,offers some hope that writing is returning to its primacy in corporate communication. Major firms around the world, especially those with a global presence, are switching from telephone and voice mail communication to instant messaging. Yes, the annoying IMing that your children and students seem to find irresistible is now company policy in many of the world's leading businesses. Why?

Because instant messaging turns out to be for these companies a more effective form of communication than the telephone conversation or the email message. How so?

  • It's more polite. A ringing telephone is an interruption, an annoyance, an unexpected distraction from your thinking or your working. There is no way for a caller to know whether or not I am ready or interested to take a call. But with instant messaging, I can indicate my ability and willingness to communicate, by displaying my green light (I am available for IM), red light (I'm online, but can't be disturbed right now), or disconnecting (you can't get to me at all.) So be fore I place an IM to a colleague, I make sure he or she is available for such communication.
  • It's more likely to go through. When you call someone on the phone, what are the chances they will answer? Your placing the call will in perhaps two out of three instances be a wasted effort, complete with a telephone-tag voice message that your correspondent will waste his or her time in accessing and hearing. With an instant message, you know before you dial whether they are there at the other end to pick up.
  • It's more concise. Writing takes more work than talking, so we tend to be more parsimonious with our words on IM than on the telephone.
  • It's more thoughtful. Some say it is possible to speak without thinking, and we all know people that prove this axiom with their every utterance. But most of us cannot write without forethought. So what we type into the little box on the instant messenger screen tends to be more careful that what we speak into the mouthpiece of the telephone.
  • It's non-exclusive. When I am on the telephone with one person, I cannot take a call from another and carry on two separate conversations at once. But we have all seen our children or students keep five or six IM windows open simultaneously, communicating (in writing) with an array of correspondents without missing a morsel of meaning.
  • It can be recorded, if desired. Want to save that last IM exchange? Choose File --> Save from the menubar. Much easier than recording a telephone conversation. And only the parts you save become official corporate records -- the rest of the IM is not saved for posterity or for possible subpoena, as are email messages.
What does this trend mean for us in the classroom? It means we should not be afraid to teach our students to send instant messages -- they turn out to be good practice in writing, they improve typing speed and accuracy, and they prepare students for the world of work. They can even be used as writing assignments: Instruct the class to carry on a serious IM session with one or two other students on a topic from the curriculum, save it, and send it to you for grading. You'll be surprised at how their writing will improve, and the quality of their thinking about the content will rise. For more ideas on using instant messaging for teaching and learning, see the article in this series, Educational Messaging.

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