Writing – Critical For Communicators, But It’s Not Everything

Liam Fitzpatrick wrote a  controversial post earlier this month, saying that he thought writing skills are over-rated for communicators:

“To be honest I don’t think being a good writer matters – I’ve met plenty of great comms people who couldn’t write to save their lives and I know a few fantastic writers who I’d never trust to give communications advice.”

Shel Holtz,  David Murray and Reuben Bronee took Fitzpatrick to task, leading to two follow-up posts where he clarified and reasserted his view that other skills are more important for professional communicators. As Shel wrote:

I would never hire someone to manage communication who can’t write, nor would I hire anyone into a front-line communication job who couldn’t tell a story in words.”

This back-and-forth (which continued in the comments on those posts) got me thinking over the last few days.

So, what’s my take?

Writing is CRITICAL

Writing is an absolutely central skill for communicators. From my perspective, this applies from entry-level communicators right through to senior, experienced professionals. Frankly, it’s an important skill in many jobs  – many people outside the communications function need to communicate their ideas simply and persuasively – but for communicators, it’s critical.

At the entry level, there are few skill deficiencies that will hold you back more surely than good writing. Later on, while the type of writing you undertake may change as you rise through the ranks (more reports and proposals, and fewer news releases, for example), the importance remains throughout. What’s more, at a senior level you need to be able to review other peoples’ writing and help them to improve. That’s hard to do if your own writing skills are lacking.

Other skills are critical, too

If you’ve ever studied management theory, you may be familiar with Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory – essentially, it states that certain factors (“hygiene factors”) need to be present in jobs for people to be motivated, without actually motivating people themselves. So, without a good salary (for example) people will be de-motivated; however a good salary won’t actually motivate people more – it just needs to be present to allow other motivators to work.

Good writing skills are the equivalent of a “hygiene factor” in communicators’ careers. Without them, people are much less likely to succeed. However, they don’t make a successful communicator by themselves – there are many other important skills that are required – strategic planning, time management, inter-personal communications, math (sorry – it’s true), media relations and others come to mind, for example.

So, my perspective can be boiled down to this:

Writing is an essential skill for communicators. However, they also require skills far above and beyond this to be truly successful in the long term.

What do you think? Where does writing rank on your list of communications skills?

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  • Writing is a foundational element of all successful communicators. In my view, here’s why. Good writers become good communications strategists–again, in my opinion. There’s something about writing and the way a writer’s brain ticks that breeds strategic thinking. I think it’s part creativity, part thought process. Whatever the formula, the best strategists I know are also tremendous writers. Is that a coincidence?

    @arikhanson

  • Being in the media side of things, not the PR side, I don’t know if my observations are completely accurate, but here they are.

    In my experience, and in my industry, I know plenty of writers who can’t write. It’s the editing that makes them seem like they can write in spades. I would assume the same exists on the other side of the PR fence — would one communicator be sending out a press release before it’s proofread by someone else? I hope not!

    In an ideal world, everyone in both industries would be able to write well — but I just don’t think that’s the case.

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  • Petermoran

    I agree. The skill of good writing is very important for professional communicators, but as you mention, it’s just one of many essential tools. I think it’s more accurate to say that good writing is critical for business–after all, communication is ultimately a business function. Clear writing is a product of clear thinking, and it’s really the latter that drives success for individuals and the organizations that they work in.