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If I Had to Do It Over…

I never planned to be a writer.

When I entered college in 1975, I had no plan at all. I had a vague interest in electronics, and seeing that on my application, the University of Washington saw fit to put me into College of Electrical Engineering.

It was there I encountered what would become my career’s passion.

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Engr 141

I’ve often told the story that Engineering 141 – Introduction to Fortran Programing changed my life.

A required class for all engineering students at the UW, it was the first time I’d used a computer of any sort … and it was love at first sight. Things just clicked. I walked out not only with a perfect grade, but with the giddy realization that people would pay me to do this.

They’d pay me to have fun.

Over the rest of my college career, the roots of what twenty years later would become Ask Leo! were sown as I helped friends with technology and worked the local help desk from time to time, often for free.

The real world

My first job out of college was with a small company that got smaller over time — unintentionally.

But I was having fun.

In a small company, being a “jack of all trades” is an asset. As a result, I worked on a number of different things, from software maintenance and bug-fixing to feature addition and more. I also wrote end-user documentation for our tools, and as well as a monthly newsletter sent to the company’s customers.

Eighteen years at Microsoft followed. There, I not only worked on a variety of projects, but was introduced to email (my first email address was, indeed, @microsoft.com), the internet, and web development. Once again, as a “jack of all trades”, I alternated between being an “individual contributor” writing software, and being a manager of same.

Not long after leaving Microsoft, I fell in with some internet entrepreneur types, and, to make a long story short, Ask Leo! happened.

After doing Ask Leo! for just a little while, I came to an unexpected conclusion.

Not only was I writing, I was a writer.

And I had been all along.

Had I known that, I would have done some things a little differently.

If I had to do it again

I would have paid more attention in English class. Heck, I would have taken more English, grammar, and writing classes.

The problem was, I hated writing in school, absolutely hated it. It wasn’t until I started working a real job that I discovered that not only could I write relatively well (though I couldn’t spell to save my life – I still can’t), I actually kinda sorta enjoyed it.

That customer newsletter I put out at my first job? Not only was it my idea, but it was pretty fun. Writing documentation because, in the end, I was the software department? It worked. What did I do well at Microsoft? Communicate via email — which is, of course, writing. I even got my first published article in one of Microsoft’s early developer magazines.

But it didn’t dawn on me that I was writing.

Do what you love? Write what you love!

What I hated in school wasn’t writing; it was writing about things I knew nothing about and wasn’t interested in. Once I got past that, words started to … well, to trickle out. I’m certainly not about to write the next great American novel. But I do write.

And if I’d paid more attention and made a few different choices back then, I’d be a better writer today. Much better.

Which brings me to my point….

We are all writers

A Writer's LaptopRegardless of your profession, writing, especially in this internet-enabled age, is becoming more and more critical. The ability to express yourself, clearly and even entertainingly, is often the difference between being good at a job and being great at it, a blog post being shared or ignored, or an email being understood or discarded.

A question being answered … or not.

I bring this up because of the number of people who write to me who, to put it very bluntly, simply can’t.

Now, to be clear, there are two distinct camps: non-native speakers, for whom English is a second language, and those who’ve grown up speaking English, but still can’t write a coherent sentence if their life depends on it.

I have a lot of sympathy for the first group (very technically, English is my second language1). I’ve found myself trying to explain the rules of English to my overseas relatives and friends, and it’s hard!

But, to be completely honest, I have very little sympathy, and less and less patience, for the second. After growing up and being educated in an English-speaking country, there’s very little excuse for not being able to express yourself in your native language. It doesn’t have to be eloquent, and it doesn’t have to be prose, but it needs to be understandable.

I think you’d be shocked at how many fail that simple test.

You are being judged

Sad as it is, both groups are at a severe disadvantage.

It’s probably not fair, and it’s certainly not politically correct, but the reality of the internet is that speaking and writing English well matters. Not only are vast amounts of resources and content in English, but it’s the closest thing we have to a common tongue among the masses online who speak a variety of other languages.

Your use of English — particularly as a native speaker — heavily colors how you are perceived. It can be a barrier or an aid to getting your ideas across, your position understood, your desires met, and more.

There used to be a commercial for a vocabulary product that began, “People judge you by the words you use …”. And this isn’t even about vocabulary.

It’s not fair, but it’s very, very true. You may be the smartest, coolest, most wonderful, knowledgeable, and professional person on the planet, but if your email, posts, and other writings sound like a spoiled teenager who didn’t finish high school, don’t be surprised if that’s exactly how you’re treated.

The ability to express yourself clearly and coherently in your native language – and in English, if that’s not your native tongue – can make a huge difference in your success online.

And in life, for that matter.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d make it a priority. I hope you will, too.

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Footnotes & references

1: Even though living in Canada, I spoke only Dutch until I was around three. It’s what my parents spoke. The British neighbor lady saw this and said it would not do, so she taught me English. Then, when I hit kindergarten in the U.S. a couple of years later, that morphed into “American”. 🙂

38 comments on “If I Had to Do It Over…”

  1. Leo, I agree with you totally, but also think you should add reading and comprehension. I see many forums, yours included, where somebody either did not read what you wrote, or did not comprehend what you wrote. And it is evident in their posting.

  2. You are absolutely, 100% correct about needing to be able to write. I’ve seen many of my fellow employees be passed over because they could not write even the most simple sentence. (They are high school graduates.) Failure to demonstrate even the most basic writing skills has cost them dollars, promotions and career opportunities.

    I agree with you about basic English being an extremely useful and virtually a universal language. I lived and worked in Asia for for a number of years. I was able to communicate using English everywhere I lived and worked. However, I was, and still am, in awe of those who spoke multiple languages with ease. A security guard at an apartment where I lived spoke 4 languages and 3 dialects with ease. I was truly humbled realizing I struggle to manage with only my English and 10 words of Spanish which were of little use in Asia.

    Great article, thanks for highlighting this important issue.

  3. “Now, to be clear, there are two distinct camps: non-native speakers, for whom English is a second language, and those who’ve grown up speaking English.” – Sadly, it’s very often the case that non-native speakers have a better command of English than native speakers. I’m not sure whether that’s an indictment of our education systems, or….

    “It’s not fair.” – I think it’s absolutely fair. Having the ability to communicate clearly is an important skill.

  4. Speaking of languages, I speak and write fluently Hungarian, Hebrew and English, fluently in that order. Life is exacting.
    * Keep on the great work and thank you.

    Uri

  5. I come from a family where my grandparents and father edited a weekly newspaper. One sister was the managing editor of a furniture company trade journal. My brother wrote a column about birds for a national publication and my other sister edits publications for civic groups. All four of us kids have degrees unrelated to professional writing. Our parents never pressured us into improving our writing skills; however, we were fortunate to have teachers that emphasized writing and parents who supported our teachers (and our efforts). The start of my education in civil engineering might have come to an abrupt halt if not for the A I received in freshman English. I went on to graduate and obtain my PE; however, I never lost sight of the importance of writing skills. I can affirm that the college graduates we’ve hired over the past years advance in direct proportion to their writing skills.

  6. Leo
    As an indictment of our education system and the unwillingness of individuals to take personal responsibility for their education I find this to be an excellent article. I will agree that we are all responsible for making ourselves clearly understood in written communications. I will also admit to an inability to properly use punctuation, unless I really bruise my brain.
    Although I agree with the ” two distinct camps ” analogy, I would like to propose that there is a subset of issues shared by both. The first issue being what I call ” Techspeak “. This is the terminology which we use to discuss computing issues, and regardless of which camp you are in it can be very daunting to try and understand let alone make yourself clearly understood in it. The second issue is more subtle and in the mind of the reader / receiver. I call that one ” I forgot how I felt when I first started computing “. This refers to the, oh crap, feeling you deal with when a wonderfully helpful machine turns on you when you push the wrong key.
    So we have a poorly educated, severely handicapped in ” techspeak ” individual wanting to get help during an urgent and extremely stressful personal computing event trying to communicate with someone who has moved well past their level of computing skills. Given this scenario I think it’s amazing that they can communicate at all. I have looked back over my email communications with tech support and I will admit to some panic and incoherence. And I am not a computing newbie.
    I posted this quote from the article on my bulletin board over my monitor to remind me……
    ” The ability to express yourself, clearly and even entertainingly, is often the difference between being good at a job and being great at it; a blog post being shared or ignored; an email being understood or discarded. A question being answered … or not. I bring this up because of the number of people who write to me who, to put it very bluntly, simply can’t. “

    • JD: Re your admission “I will also admit to an inability to properly use punctuation, unless I really bruise my brain.”
      You have one repeating problem with punctuation which I have never seen before (and you probably are not aware of), one example of this being:
      ….. severely handicapped in ” techspeak ” individual ….. The problem/error is re the quotation marks: they are all back-to front, and should not have a space immediately inside of them. This example should read: ….. severely handicapped in “techspeak” individual ….. (I see that mine are different to yours in that the opening and closing ones are the same as each other and are straight and parallel, not curved like upside-down commas; probably a different font? However they need to be fixed, and the space characters need to be removed.) Thanks – Dick Jenkin.

      • Richard,
        Thanks for the heads up. I can see other places where I interchanged the ” space with the “tight. I intentionally put the space in when
        I’m sending friends command line inputs, or any inputs actually, to try and ensure they do not think the quotes are part of said input.
        In the future I will try to be more aware of how I place quotes when I’m writing regular correspondence.
        As far as the shape etc of the actual quote marks themselves I’m using the Ariel Regular Font. In all three of my win based word
        processing programs the quotes show up as two straight parallel slashes and are the same at both ends of the quote. The quote keys
        on both my HP Laptop and my Logitech desk top keyboards are depicted as plain parallel slashes. I had my wife send me this sample from her Win based word processing program _“What the hell is going on with this?!”_ when I put it in my program it shows up exactly like yours. I do recognize the need to show the open and close of quoted material. But since the actual representation of the indicators is in the hands of whatever Font you are using I hope we can agree that there is more than one right way to display those indicators.
        Have a great day
        JD

      • The choice of open/close/right/left quotes is mercilessly and automatically mangled by my content management system. Sorry about that. (But it’s not adding spaces, at least. 🙂 )

        • Since we’re in open mode here today Leo, can I just point out a small error that I’ve seen you make (not in this post, but in common with many other people): “criteria” is plural, of which the singular is “criterion”. Does that seem pedantic?

          • It’s interesting … common usage tends to shift meaning as well. Technically you’re quite right, but does common usage follow that rule? A worse example is “data”. When’s the last time you saw its singular actually used?

            Problem is that common usage also has us literally now defining literally as figuratively. Sigh.

          • Actually, it’s either an interesting piece of data (uncountable noun) or an interesting datum (singular form). 😉

      • There once was a time when people banged their fingers on pushbuttons, using a quaint device called a “typewriter.” This device had no choice of inverted or directionally facing quotation marks; indeed, all quotation marks were a simple pair of short parallel lines like this “. We have now advanced to electronic word processors looking over our shoulder and selecting what it thinks you mean when you select a quotation mark. In the example you describe, the little applet’s micro-brain is probably becoming confused by the space between the quotation mark and the text. I know that when I use my preferred font in MS Word, my quotation marks do follow the style you like (and this does make long and/or complicated quotes easier to parse).

        • 🙂 It’s funny, but WordPress converted your parallel line quotes to directional quotes. 🙂 Just as they converted my colon plus closed parentheses to smileys 🙂

  7. So true. I got a job in management partly because of my writing skills. I published a weekly newsletter for the staff in a factory (about 450 people read it). It also went to head office.
    Part of my management job was to write requests for capital expenditure for the larger projects, usually the ones over $100,000, and the quality of the writing could mean the difference between the factory getting the equipment it needed, and missing out to another plant. With one of these applications, I got word back that the company board thought it was the best written application they had seen. It was important to explain things clearly enough that a non technical person could understand it, and include the background, which accountants and board members who weren’t familiar with the process could comprehend. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes.

  8. Love the article as I see so much poor English not only by the average individual but also by professional communicators such as Radio/TV broadcasters and Newspaper/Magazine writers. Grammar and spelling just seem to have little value among communicators currently.

    Similar to yourself, Leo, I too am a Canuck originally from BC and began University planning to be a reporter but when moving to the University of Washington changed my major to Business Administration getting a degree in Marketing 1964) However, a lot of my background at the UW was also involved in Theatre, Radio and TV.

    Later not being overly excited about the world of Business, my career change to becoming a Professional photographer (MPA). Twenty years ago, Dec. 9, 1995, I finally found a real reason to have a computer after having taken a course on Basic Programming and playing with a Sinclair ZX 81 neither of which were particularly useful I made the plunge and began a precarious voyage of learning the things I felt were worth my time and effort.

    Since then much of my time has been spent as an Admin in PC Tech in the Paltalk Voice/Text program. The poor English I see in that room is quite incredible and I have a large Wordpad document about words that folks use that bear only a slight resemblance to the correct word.

    So, thank you Leo for your contributions to all of our education and Go Huskies.

  9. I’m not trying to start a flame war but merely sharing something that really happened (and don’t flame me for my grammar, I know it’s not perfect). My boss wanted to give back to the community so he started a scholarship but he stopped after the first year because he lost all hope in our area’s youth. Out of the dozens of applicants he had to pick from, he was utterly embarrassed for them because of their writing skills. Every single one had terrible spelling and grammar, horrible topics of discussion and they were mostly incoherent. A few were even impossible to understand. ALL were given GPA’s of 3.0 and above! He handed one to me to read but didn’t explain what it was. As I read it, I began laughing because I thought it was a joke. The student answered every question on the application with a single paragraph and every sentence began with the pronoun “I”. He had a 3.5 GPA. It’s impossible for me to get across to you just how pathetic these applications were. What’s frightening is that they were awarded good grades and told by their leadership that they’re 3.0+ on a 4.0 scale when indeed they wrote (and apparently thought) at the 6th grade level. This was 10 years ago before everyone had a cell phone with unlimited texting so I can only imagine how much worse it is now with their brains constantly immersed in “textspeak”.

    • “He lost all hope in our area’s youth.” – But it’s not really their fault. Responsibility for decreasing language/communications skills rests with previous generations which parked their kids in front of the TV rather than reading with them, which devised educations systems that clearly do not work, which fiddled with their iThings rather than actually interacting with their kids, which used video game consoles as a babysitter, etc., etc.

  10. Many years ago, I was a first line supervisor in a federal agency responsible for collecting data used by the military. I had an employee who was absolutely brilliant and innovative. He could not spell or write and his handwriting was just awful. I found it almost impossible to take anything this person wrote seriously because I just didn’t have the hours necessary to figure out what he was trying to say. My solution? The junior people in my office took turns translating this person’s writing into understandable English (his first language). I don’t feel terribly good about this approach but it allowed me to consider the person’s ideas rather than being stymied by his inability to communicate in writing. I always encouraged my people to learn to write and even taught courses while traveling on the ships. Always had packed classes.

  11. Hi Leo, you say you wish you paid more attention in English classes. As a bit of a grammar nerd, may I say I have no problem with your writing.

  12. Just curious what part of Canada you lived in. One set of my grandparents came to Winnipeg from the Netherlands in the late 1800s along with a lot of other like-minded Netherlanders.

    Whenever I am asked by someone who wants to learn programming “what is the first language I should learn?” my answer is always “English”. If you can’t communicate effectively then it doesn’t matter how skillful you are as a programmer. Try to remember (short list):

    Don’t use a long word when a short one will do as well.

    Don’t use a technical word when a non-technical one will do as well.

    Don’t use an obscure word when a common word will do as well.

    The primary function of language is to communicate, not to impress. Keep in mind (as a good example of a bad example) former Canadian Prime Minister of Canada, Joe Clark, who when talking to a farmer in India asked “What is the totality of your acreage?”.

    • “Don’t use a long word when a short one will do as well.” – IOW, don’t use an unnecessarily grandiloquent vocable when a exiguous comme il faut alternative could be used in lieu.

  13. Someone should also mention that the advertising community should share a huge part of the blame for the dumbing down of the English/American language.
    “Got Milk?” No, I have milk, I don’t got milk. I could go on. The texts that I receive continually confuse me and not just the abbreviations that tend to be much of what I get. I too have to read and reread some texts several times to decode what was supposed to be said. As for spaces before and after quotation marks, I put those in so that when I copy and paste the text doesn’t get jammed up against them making the text harder to read. Yes, my spell check dings me for it, but I can’t always count on the font being readable.

    • “No, I have milk, I don’t got milk. ” – Gotten milk? But seriously, I disagree with your assertion. The ad industry isn’t in the education business and shoulder no blame whatsoever for the fact that our kids leave school barely able to read or write. It’s not their fault; it’s ours. It’s our fault as parents for sitting our kids in front of SpongeBob rather than taking the time to read with them. And it’s our fault as a society for permitting our education system to become what it has.

      I recently read that grade 11 students in a non-English-speaking country – it may have been the Netherlands or, perhaps, one of the Scandanavian countries – had better English skills than grade 11 students in the US. Shocking, really. And it has nothing to do with the ad industry: it’s simply a reflection of what we do as parents and as a society.

      • Actually, those ads are a conscious parody of grammar and can also be used by teachers to point out correct usage. When I was in school during one of the golden ages of education (the past is always the golden age in many people’s hindsight) the offending ad was “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Teachers would mention it and Winston got some viral advertising from the controversy. (‘like’ should have been ‘as’). Now English has evolved to accept ‘like’ in many cases where previously only ‘as’ was correct.

        • “Actually, those ads are a conscious parody of grammar.” – Indeed. The ad industry mirrors language trends; it doesn’t create them.

          “Now English has evolved to accept ‘like’ in many cases where previously only ‘as’ was correct.” – Yeah, both style and conventions do evolve and change over time – if they didn’t, we’d all be writing like Bill Shakespeare (or should that be “as Bill Shakespeare”?) – and our language has certainly become less flowery and formal and the rules less sticky. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wait, was that a conjunction I started the last sentence with? And did I end that one with a preposition? And another conjunction! Oh my!

          At the end of the day, the most important thing is that people are able to communicate clearly and effectively. And that’s too often not the case nowadays (there I go with the conjunctions again….).

    • To my mind, it’s the system: a system which seems to be very much stuck in the past and which doesn’t take account of how kids’ brains are now wired. I’ll use my 13-year-old niece as an example. She’s an okay student. Not great; just okay. She doesn’t enjoy the academic side of school too much and her parents constantly battle with her over homework (“Seriously? I have to do it now? But it’s not due until the day after tomorrow, and I really wanted to go out tonight.”). She does, however, love to watch educational YouTube videos – and discuss them with friends and family – and has a surprisingly good understanding of subjects you’d expect a 13-year-old to know absolutely nothing about. Quantum mechanics, for example: her current kick is the double-slit experiment. She recently shared this video with me – and, I have to say, it’s really very good:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfPeprQ7oGc

      We’ve got the opportunity to bring world-class educators into classrooms via video and to use social/interactive learning to make education more relevant and much more effective. Yet we don’t. Instead, we have (sometimes) mediocre teachers dictating to their classes from dog-eared 1960s-era text books. Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?Bueller? Yawn!

  14. The sad part for me is that I didn’t really learn proper punctuation and grammar until 12th grade. Of course, I’m not perfect in both, but I strive to be grammatically correct and use proper punctuation. Using proper punctuation, for me, is more important. It can be difficult to read peoples’ posts on-line 95% of the time. Some people try, but most don’t. Why? Many number of reasons, most of which are guesses. I even know a substitute teacher that will not use proper punctuation on her Facebook posts. It makes it difficult to get a teaching job if you don’t use proper punctuation all the time. I have a boss who doesn’t really try in regards to her memos she puts out at work. I would probably annoy her if I made corrections, and she’s said that she doesn’t really care.

    Until reading your article, I realized that I’m a writer, too. I won’t be writing a novel or anything, but I can write things. I wrote a board game and an instruction manual. It’s a lot of fun to do, and the manual looks great. If I had more time, I could make more changes to make it look better. I’m also writing a second one, but I’ve put it on hold, because I can’t find an ending, the same thing that happened in the first one, but I figured that out. I write letters and journal entries. Mostly the latter.

    I’m in an English class that deals with research papers, and it’s linked to a law class, and they’re both fun. Fortunately, people are making a BIG effort on proper punctuation and grammar. They’re easier to read, but I still see some mistakes.

    I just wish that people would realize how important this skill is and make a better effort.

    • “Using proper punctuation, for me, is more important.” – To my mind, G&P are equally important – and, in some ways, equally unimportant. Both can obscure the meaning of a sentence, but neither needs to be perfect in order for the meaning to be clear. For example, you said, “Using proper punctuation, for me, is more important.” Is that grammatically correct? Should you have said, “Using proper punctuation is, for me, more important”? Or, perhaps, you should have used “to” in place of “for”? Which is right? Either? Neither? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter too much which way it’s worded/structured as the meaning is clear and I’m able to understand your point – and that’s what communication is really all about: being clear and being understood.

  15. There’s a cultural difference between those who have learned to program, including the use of string variables in data statements or lists, and those who have not. For the logic-minded and computer-savvy, it’s truly weird that traditional rules of grammar from the typesetting era are to place periods and commas before the closing quotation mark of a title. In technological contexts, this is a syntax error waiting to happen.

  16. I got into computers as a hobby very early on. Many of my hobbies end up being my job but every job I have ever held and succeeded in revolved around the fact that I could write and speak clearly. I became the go-between from those who spoke technically and those who did not. Although I actually ended up being a webmaster (self-taught) for a Canadian government office, I usually described myself as a Communications Specialist and all that meant is that I could write and speak clearly in English.

  17. Ah, ENGR141, one of my favorite classes as well. Perfect grade here as well. But then again my mom taught me Fortran when I was in middle school, she was in the UW CompSci Master’s program at the time.

  18. I agree. Where I work, most people have a lot of education and training in accounting and tax. They were business majors. But for me, coming at this as my second career, I have some accounting and tax training, but my undergraduate degree is actually in English literature, where I spent many hours reading and writing. My bosses have always told me that they enjoy reading my letters and reports because they are well written. Other people that I work with, they might know more, but can’t write very well. Considering how much we have to communicate with our clients, being able to write is equally as important as knowing accounting and tax.

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