Writing is not a team activity. Editing is a team activity. Writing never works collectively, because it depends on a large number of threads being held simultaneously in a person’s short-term memory. That’s not something you can share. It’s a waste of time to try. Of course, people try all the time. We can see the results in bad corporate documents, legal boilerplate and technical drivel, and in the endless meetings held to hammer out that bad work.
Often someone says something in a meeting that captures a thought perfectly. It may even seem elegant, like something that everyone knows but that hasn’t been expressed so well until now. Someone will say, “Get that down.” Later, at editing time, it may turn out to make no sense at all. The context has changed, of course: what’s said in a meeting grows out of the experiences of everyone there, complete with unspoken assumptions, agreements and compromises. Text has no context at all. It appears out of nowhere, bearing all of its antecedents within itself. It has no hope of matching the immediacy of a spoken conversation.
Writing has a tense, complicated relationship with speech. Good writing gives the illusion of resembling speech, or being derived from speech. But writing that is transcribed from speech is generally bad writing. It does not feel like real speech. Some writing does feel like real speech; that writing can seem stilted when you read it out loud. The speech writing evokes is imaginary speech, speech that takes place in your mind’s ear.
Don’t write to cover your ass. It won’t work, and if you write well you won’t need it. Writing is not a contract. Diligently including every word that every stakeholder wants in the document is not writing but listing, note-taking, at best. Writing that aims to protect the writer from liability is not good writing, even if it is necessary sometimes. Preserving the ability to say, “Yes, we mentioned that, look right here” is not one of the goals of good writing.
Many technical people have been taught the virtue of brevity. They have been taught too well. Brevity is not any greater a virtue than punctuation. It is necessary, but not sufficient, and much less important than clarity.
Writing is an exercise in empathy. We test our writing by forgetting our own hard-won knowledge, positions and interests and reading our work from the perspective of the stranger. A turn of phrase that’s familiar to us may be baffling to someone who wasn’t in the room when that phrasing emerged. We can only know how baffling if we can suspend the self for a moment and read like someone who has no idea what is going on here. Good writers are able to suspend the self for sustained periods — to be both the stranger and the insider in turn.