How to find your inner wordsmith, and why you need to.

(This article of mine was originally published on LinkedIn on 19 September 2019, and I've given myself permission to reproduce it in full here. I used US English in this article.)

Before I get started, let’s get one thing clear. It’s highly likely that I’m not talking about you, specifically. The chances of that are very small. I’m not talking about your inner wordsmith.

I’m talking about the wordsmith within your organization. Or department, depending on the size of your organization.

Which raises a very big question:

Question #1: Does my organization have a wordsmith in its ranks?

Forget official job descriptions and company hierarchy. Forget KPIs and targets. Those things will take care of themselves if your organization is, well, well-organized.

The role I am talking about starts as an informal one, taken on voluntarily by a person in addition to their official job. 

This person has a gift for words. A way with them. Words gravitate to them.

They take on the extra work out of their love for words and their innate desire to prevent poorly-constructed sentences and lazy writing from escaping into the world. There are enough examples of questionable writing out there. Far be it from them to allow their organization to add to that pile. Not if it is within their power to prevent it.

Wordsmiths are readily identified by colleagues who know they need help. They will often be co-opted to assist, and they will readily agree, even when busy with their own work. It may start with “How do you spell…?” or “Can you please proofread my report?” or “Can you please check this email before I send it?” Over time, it can progress to full copy-editing, where the colleague gives their initial attempt to the wordsmith, who then turns it into an articulate document.

It's a kind of magic.

The wordsmith knows better than you how to say what you want to be said. How? She just does.

The wordsmith picks up all your typos. How? He just does.

Grammar. Just does.

Punctuation. Just does.

You can learn a lot about writing from the wordsmith. But, until you can write like they do, the most efficient method of creating a document will be to write your draft as quickly as you can, then hand it to them. Once it comes back, you can submit the document to your manager with full confidence that the writing quality has been taken care of.

There is an analogue in the structural engineering profession, where I have come from. Engineers always seem to find time to provide input to someone else’s project. It’s a combination of finding a colleague’s project interesting because you don’t have to know the mundane details and being able to contribute without having the responsibility of a project owner.

When I was working at BuroHappold in the early years of my career, I was the facilitator of what they called design workshops. A design workshop was a forum that put a team with a challenging project in the same room with subject matter experts drawn from the organization. Valuable direction was given early in the project, when it would have the most effect. These workshops had a job number outside the project budget that the experts could allot their time to. Everybody won. The designers got the input they sought, the experts had their fun, the budget didn’t take a hit, and the organization got a successful project out of it.

I propose that the talent of the wordsmiths within your organization can, and should, be harnessed in a similar manner. All document authors will benefit from a wordsmith's input. The best time for that input is once the initial drafts are written. If wordsmiths are given time to do their work, then time spent by the authors themselves will reduce significantly. The overall time spent will drop, including the time required for managerial review. The authors are left with well-written documents to their name, the wordsmiths enjoy their work, and the organization benefits in terms of time, cost and quality.

Less time. Lower cost. Better quality.

In project management, you are told you can choose only two, at the expense of the third. However, when it comes to writing documents, if you have empowered your wordsmiths you can go ahead and pick all three.

Wordsmiths are proofreaders, copy-editors, translators and interpreters all wrapped into one, and they can be key members of your organization.

If you have one in yours, you need to find him or her. If you have two, more power to you. Three, and you’re just showing off.

Question #2: What’s wrong with spell check?

Before I discuss how to find your wordsmiths, a word of warning to remove any doubt: the spell check function is not an adequate substitute for a wordsmith.

One look at your draft after spell check and the finished document after a wordsmith has worked their magic on it will demonstrate my point.

Question #3: How do I find the wordsmiths?

There is only one step in the search process.

Step 1: Don’t go looking for them. They will identify themselves.

If you are a manager with people reporting to you, the wordsmiths will make themselves known, especially if you encourage your staff to get their work checked before submitting to you.

Any staff member whose native language is not English will probably be the first to tell you that “X checked this report for me”, “Y helped me write this document", "Z proofread this proposal”.

If X, Y and Z are your wordsmiths, the finished documents will have a constant and recognizable quality about them.

Question #4: I’ve found our wordsmiths. What do I do now?

Once you’ve found your wordsmiths, then enable them. Give them the scope to work their art. Direct others to them.

Everyone in your organization will occupy varying positions on the Dunning-Kruger curve – not everybody knows they could do with the help – so it is in the best interests of your organization that as much writing as possible be filtered past those best equipped to polish it. Do that, and managerial review of documents can be confined to content, with quality already addressed.

Find your wordsmith. If you’re lucky, you may have two or three, or more.

Funnel your writing through them. Give them the time to do their thing. Wordsmiths find this work just as stimulating and rewarding as their actual job – and perhaps sometimes more so. The interest may be in the content itself, or it may be in the challenge of taking someone else’s initial attempt and synthesizing from it a work of written art.

Document authors will become more productive. Managers will spend less time correcting the authors' work.

And the quality of your company’s written communication will be lifted measurably. Possibly even immeasurably.

The difference between a document proofread by a manager who finds it a chore and one polished by a wordsmith can often be one of quantum proportions.

Let the wordsmiths within your organisation do what they were born to do, not only what they were employed to do. They may already be doing it; if so, applaud them.

They may not yet have the opportunity because of the demands of the role they currently fulfill, in which case you will have to go looking for them.

But find your wordsmiths. And watch the quality of your organization’s writing lift to the extent that you enable them.

Images: depositphotos


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