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We’ve all had one of those moments when we’re working on a document or an email and we just can’t find the right words. We know what we want to say, but saying it to the person sitting next to us is different than conveying it via the written word.
When one of my co-workers finds themselves in that situation, they usually end up at my desk. I have a reputation for being the go-to gal in the office for “wordsmithing”. I’m not quite sure how the title of wordsmith became mine, but it’s one that I am proud to bear.
I was about 18 the first time I heard the word wordsmith. It conjured images of a blacksmith standing at an anvil and forge shaping something useful out of raw material. Though the exec who used the phrase was referring to one of my co-workers who was especially adept at creating readable documentation.
For me, becoming a wordsmith happened slowly. In high school, I always liked English class — the reading, the grammar, the vocabulary, the spelling. I could have done without the actual writing assignments, but you get the idea. Even then, I had classmates who would come to me and ask me to read their papers and help them out when they were stuck.
When I started working as an entry level admin just before high school graduation, a large part of my job was to type what I was given. Oftentimes as I was typing, I’d be thinking, “I know what the writer means, but that’s not what these words say”. Sometimes it was as simple as “your” instead of “you’re” or “affect” versus “effect”. More often than not, it wasn’t a matter of using an incorrect word or even a misspelling – it was about finding a way to provide repetitive information without sounding repetitive.
So I started to grow my vocabulary. I tried different words or phrases to convey the same meaning. I listened when document changes were being discussed. I took note of phrases that were repeated in meetings. I kept a thesaurus and a dictionary on my desk at all times – and I used them, often. I read, often. I asked questions, often. And I listened. I listened to the way my co-workers and supervisors spoke, and to how others responded.
Fortunately for me, I had a wonderful mentor early in my career – the very co-worker that my first exec called a wordsmith. Mr. Mac was amazing. A retired Army officer, the man could type about 70 words per minute on a manual typewriter. And he knew words. He knew that by changing a word here and a word there, not only did he clarify what he was trying to say, but he often enhanced the message as well. He made it easy to absorb knowledge. You never felt like you were being taught. But at the end of the day, you had new skills and know-how that you could actually use. Though at the time, I didn’t realize that he was teaching me to be a wordsmith. Nor did I understand how important those skills would be throughout my entire professional life.
I wish I could say that it was as simple as taking an online course and *poof* I was a wordsmith. The reality is that I learned through trial and error — and, I think, by osmosis. Some people have an affinity for numbers. I seem to have developed an affinity for words.
I have been privileged to have been surrounded by intelligent, articulate people. This helped me, I believe, become more thoughtful and, I hope, more articulate.
So pay attention. What do you want to get better at doing? How can you actively work to make it happen? For me the key was finding a mentor with whom I could work and learn from easily. For you it may be having those references at your fingertips. Whatever skill you’d like to improve, it’s going to take some work, but the effort is worth the outcome.
By Sherry Arlt | People Science Processor