What Signal Does Your Writing Send?

Always think of your written work as your virtual stand-ins. What do those stand-ins say about you?

There’s an interesting rule in Hollywood for any would-be screenwriter hoping to sell a script. It’s unwritten but strictly enforced by the industry’s power structure. And many amateur screenwriters get it wrong at first.

If you want your script read by a Hollywood producer or literary agent, the hardcopy you send had better be printed on standard, letter-sized, white printer paper, with no fancy cover, three-hole punched and bound with two (not three) of those brass fasteners with the circular top and two long tails. Pop the fasteners into the top and bottom holes (leave the center hole empty) and fan them out against the back to bind your script.

Why is this so important? It sends a signal: You know how Hollywood demands to read screenplays. This obviously says nothing about your ability to write or about the quality of the script itself, but you’ve cleared the first hurdle. You’ve shown that you’re not a total amateur, which would end your script’s journey immediately. Why? Because, fair or not, Hollywood readers are busy people, inundated with screenplays. Experience has taught them that amateurs’ scripts are almost always terrible. So anything that sends that “amateur” signal will get your script trashed before it gets read.

Many would-be screenwriters get this exactly backward. When they send their script to Hollywood, they print it on heavy paper, sometimes paper of various colors. Many even put the whole thing in an expensive leather journal or other high-end binding. Maybe they assume the extra care they show for the script will imply greater care went into writing it. Or maybe they just want their work to “stand out” against all of the other scripts flooding Hollywood at any given moment. These scripts do stand out, but what they tell the reader is that the writer is a complete newbie — hardly worth even the 10 seconds it would take to open the leather cover and read the title.

The point?

Everything we put into writing sends signals to our readers — signals about our intelligence, our understanding of the subject matter, our seriousness, our maturity, our thought-processes. It’s worth stopping to consider the writing you’re putting out into your world — from the report you spent a month writing and editing, to the short email you dashed off this morning to a few colleagues. What signals are those documents conveying about you?

Software entrepreneur Kyle Wiens has written a great article for the Harvard Business Review — I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. His argument is that even though writing isn’t in everyone’s job description, it can still tell us a lot about people, including their ability to learn and apply what they’ve learned. That’s why Wiens says he gives a grammar test to everyone applying for a job with him — any type of job.

Here’s the key insight from the article:

Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”

Unfair, yes, but that’s reality.

For anything you write and share, no matter how informal or casual, it’s worth your time to review the completed document before sending it, and to think about what signals it will send to your readers. Always think of your documents as virtual stand-ins for you “in your physical absence,” as Wiens puts it.

In fact, I have only one argument with the article itself — and it’s not with the author but rather with the way Harvard Business Review displays it.

Note the article’s title: I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.

If you click on the link to the article, which I included above, you’ll see how they chose to display the URL: “…/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo.

That sends a signal, too, don’t you think?

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of MoneySavvyTeen.com, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.