The Pen Is Mightier Than the Code

As we approach another new year, it's traditionally a time for looking to the future and laying the foundation for a better life. But it remains a tough time to plan for the future of a technical career. What can one do to ensure new opportunities and stability?

The one area I recommend focusing on is not the latest technical trend or managerial fad. The long-term success of your career isn't going to be determined by your prowess at agile mobile development or achieving CMMI Level 64. No, the most important thing you can do to ensure you have a vibrant career for years to come is to learn to write well. That's right: Mastering a 5,000-year-old skill offers the best prospects for remaining relevant in the 21st-century job market. Whether you are an executive, project manager or hard-core technologist, writing is the key to your future.

Why writing and not something more modern, technical or sexy? Although communicating effectively is important, it's not the only reason to learn to write well. The skills associated with good business writing will always be in demand. Good writing isn't really about good grammar or pretty words. It represents the culmination of a series of valuable business skills, ones you'll use constantly, even when you're not writing.

Thinking clearly. You cannot write about something without first thinking about it clearly. For me, writing is the process of being confronted by my own ignorance. It forces me to think carefully about my subject. A first draft is primarily an exercise in exposing the limits of my understanding of my own ideas. And editing that first draft involves far more than fixing typos; it is an exercise in clarifying thoughts. In a world full of half-baked, hype-infused concepts, clear thinking is a rare and valuable commodity.

Considering the audience. In addition to encouraging you to think clearly about the subject you are addressing, writing well requires consideration of the audience you want to communicate with. You need to adapt your style to their language, culture, interests and concerns. Good writing has coherent goals for what the author wants the audience to think, feel or do and is designed to fulfill those goals. Good business writing is not about self-expression, but about moving an enterprise forward. Moving other people is a key business skill regardless of your position.

Demonstrating understanding. One of Stephen Covey's famous habits of highly effective people is to "seek first to understand, then to be understood." But in building business relationships, just understanding is not enough. We need to demonstrate our understanding of those we engage with. They need to know that we really understand them. Good writing demonstrates the author's understanding of her audience, echoing their ideas, concerns and feelings. Because one of the most common complaints from business people about us is that we don't understand them, we need to make a special effort to do this.

Being understood. Of course, good writing leads to being understood by the audience. But writing well requires that all the other skills be applied to create that understanding. If you can't make yourself understood, it doesn't really matter how brilliant your ideas are, since they will be imprisoned in your head, delivering value to no one.

If you develop all of those skills, you will find a place in any business environment. The future of your technical career may just lie in mastering the fundamental skill of writing.

Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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