On Writing for Work

4 min readDec 28, 2023

Martha Coven has written a crisp, friendly book on writing for work that I recommend for anyone who writes for work, or who wants to write for work.

I should note that Martha is a friend and a neighbor, which is why I bought the book and read it. It’s a quick read and has helpful sections on writing emails, speeches, memos, proposals, power-points, and other subcategories.

“Writing on the Job” by Martha Coven

I’m not exactly a “writer”, but writing has been the primary activity of my career: writing for public consumption, or for internal and managerial purposes.

I feel like I learned to write at the elbow of my old pal, Joe Menn, when he was my “editor” at the Harvard Crimson. He was my assigned mentor. I remember the shock I felt when he tore apart my careful prose and reassembled it to make stories in the style of newspapers. And he politely, but firmly, criticized my reporting and thinking as well. “Why didn’t you ask this question? A reader will want to know. Why didn’t you get this detail? It’s important. Get on the phone and see if you can get answers.”

I learned a lot from Joe and the rough-and-tumble of college journalism. One thing I learned is that writing is a tool, and tools are for work. This kind of writing isn’t art and one shouldn’t get wrapped up in your words. Leave your ego elsewhere and be willing to tear it up, edit, change, re-order, delete. Seek out and accept advice and edits. That’s how you make it good. Good writing communicates. It doesn’t matter how much you like your own prose, if the person on the other end of it doesn’t get what you’re saying, it’s not good.

Martha has good advice. Most of it is common sense and conventional guidance. I learned most of it on the job and through trial and error. It’s cool to see it collected together in one place. She doesn’t offer any special tricks or gimmicks. And she’s not there to psychoanalyze your writer’s block or anxiety, although she gives a few tips (go for a walk, turn off your phone).

I like how Martha honors writing on the job. This is how to do good work, and how to advance agendas, interests, careers. It’s not about beauty, although there’s a kind of music that plays underneath.

For me, writing for work is also thinking. Sometimes, I have ideas that I work out by writing them. Sometimes, they fall apart when I try. When I write, I think of history: George Kennan’s “long telegram” or Pat Buchanan’s awful “seven page memo.” Memos can change the world. Writing for work is functional, but I also want it to be consequential. I want my writing to be interesting enough to keep a reader’s attention, and important enough that they will act on what they read.

The sub-hed of Martha’s book is “Best Practices for Communicating in the Digital Age” and this is the weakest part of the book. The book is not much help on how writing needs to change, or writers need to change for the present and coming digital age.

For example, it would have been interesting if Martha had tackled digital editing a bit more. A lot of writing is now done via digital platforms like google docs where edits and comments come directly into the text in real time. Sometimes it’s ambiguous who is writing a document and who is editing it. Digital documents can be messy and the process confusing and technical. Version control is a big issue. We need more norms and guidance on this.

Much writing in a digital age has to be mindful of “search engine optimization” or SEO. How to write so that google and other search engines find your text and documents? Finding readers, through internet search is a big part of communicating in our digital age. And Martha doesn’t try to tackle this in her book. In fairness, a lot of SEO is tactical and technical rather than writerly. But if you’re thinking about communicating in digital age, SEO is a pretty obvious concern.

Looming over the topic of writing in the digital age is AI and especially the large language models, like ChatGPT, that have exploded onto the scene in recent months. The task of writing is in the process of a revolution, and we’re only beginning to see where it will go. Having played with ChatGPT a bit, I can tell you that the writing is clear, a bit boring, and conforms to the guidance Martha offers. What does that mean? It means that good writing is now cheap and ubiquitous. You don’t have to be a good writer to communicate. You don’t need good grammar or spelling or fluency in English. LLMs can take care of all that pretty reliably.

The job of a writer is, I think, more and more going to be the job of generating ideas, editing, and validation. The actual writing will be done by AI.

Martha says conclusions aren’t usually necessary for most work-related writing, although recommendations are. So, I’ll conclude by recommending this short book for anyone interested; most likely for students and junior staff who are just now taking on writing tasks and could use some friendly and constructive advice.





I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.