I used to want to be a writer. In Fourth Grade, I wrote an article entitled “America’s Love Affair with Guns” for St. Patricia Grade School’s newspaper, The Happening, based on a story I had seen on 60 Minutes. (I was even nerdier then than I am now.) I was editor of that paper in 8th grade with a girl I had a big-time crush on. In high school, my favorite classes were my English classes. I wrote a short story called “Marist’s Malicious Mob of Mockingbirds and Mastodons” for my school’s literature magazine, which satirized the people on the bus to school whom I despised. I was overjoyed when that piece was published; my fetish for alliteration had been vindicated.
In college, I came back from my freshman year at U of I convinced that Electrical Engineering was not for me. I told my dad I was going to major in English instead. He said that was great, but he wasn’t going to help me pay the tuition anymore. That was great tough love, for his stubbornness opened future doors I would never have been even able to glance at let alone enter otherwise. Still, I think much more naturally and comfortably in words than I do in numbers, That’s a hard thing for the Chair of a department of mathematics and computer science to admit, but it’s true.
So, a recent article about the importance of being able to write well really connects with me. The author of the article describes reading email exchanges between Steve Jobs and tech entrepreneurs about securing funding for various ideas. He expresses his admiration for the clarity with which ideas are expressed on both sides. He posits that written communication, some long-form like email and some short-form like Tweets and Facebook posts, are quickly making face-to-face interaction seem so quaint and unnecessary.
I, for one, hope he is right. I don’t relish face-to-face interaction. I always wonder what the other person is thinking of me when we are engaged in a direct conversation: are they noticing that my eyelashes are too long and that they smudge my too-close-to-the-face glasses, that my teeth are crooked and slightly discolored, that some of my head hair has migrated to my ear because I have that forty-something-male disease that is merely an unfunny April Fool’s joke about follicle displacement? I am not comfortable with direct, look-into-my-eyes conversation. I find it distracting, so distracting, in fact, that I can’t remember people’s names and I can’t organize my thoughts. I write much better than I talk. I think I’m even somewhat good at conveying emotion and nuance in email, which is the biggest challenge to conducting business online, since it’s so easy to turn someone off or even offend someone unintentionally because email doesn’t convey sarcasm or inflection well.
I hope his claim that written communication is supplanting more direct throat-supported engagement is accurate. I’ve been telling my Computer Science students for a long time that it is important that they learn to write well, if only to bust the tired stereotype that they can’t. If what the author claims is true, however, iconoclasm is just one reason for Computer Scientists to write well. Snagging venture capital is the other.
Better find your muse, CompSci people. Those proposals aren’t going to write themselves. If you can sling words like you sling code, you’ll be well on your way to donating obscene amounts of money to your favorite department chairperson. Now get writing!