Writing Futures

looking at writing with fresh eyes

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Alison Donaldson
Bob MacKenzie

This anthology was preceded, as most writing is, by many conversations. These have included three annual collaborative workshops on the theme of writing in the world of work, attended by a diverse collection of people – a loose network of professionals interested in the part played by writing in organisational life. The titles of these events provide a flavour of the journey we have been on together: ‘Striking Moments’ (2007); ‘Inspiring Writing’ (2008); and ‘Writing Futures’ (2009, in Brighton). It was in Brighton that we agreed to put together a special pdf issue of Organisations & People on the theme of ‘Writing Futures’.

Our aim has been to assemble a useful and topical anthology of articles that raise important themes and offer a range of different styles and perspectives on the present and future of writing. We have not attempted or wanted to reach a unified view or comprehensive coverage of the topic. In our experience, that is not what the age of the internet is about, as the various articles here point out and demonstrate. Rather, we have invited a range of willing and respected authors to contribute thoughtpieces, with a clear understanding that the final word on this subject is unlikely ever to be written. In a sense, we’re simply taking the temperature at a particular moment in the history of writing. Inevitably this means there are many aspects of writing futures that we have not yet explored – for example, the widespread use of email by people to ‘cover their backs’, or the reported tendency to ignore emails (‘No one reads emails any more – with the exception of those from the boss’ (Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times, Monday 23 November 2009, page 16).

In setting out on this journey, not quite knowing where it might take us, we’ve found it helpful to remind ourselves of some important milestones in the development of alphabetic writing. Exact dates are impossible to nail down, but scholars tell us that the alphabet was probably invented by ancient Semites or Canaanites, and that the Phoenicians were writing in letters from about 1000 BC. It was the Phoenicians who literally shipped alphabetic writing – the notion of using 26 symbols to represent all imaginable linguistic sounds – around the Mediterranean, including Ancient Greece. Printing followed much later – in Europe – in the 15th century AD.

It is probably therefore not too far off the mark to describe the years 1500 to 2000 AD as the ‘Age of Print’ in the western world, and to characterise the context in which writing in its various forms takes place today as the ‘Age of the Internet’.

Continuities and novelties

The articles in this issue seemed to us to fall into two broad groupings, which we’ve called ‘continuities’ and ‘novelties’. The novelties are easy to point to. They are springing up constantly – those most talked about currently seem to be blogging and tweeting (see West, Billing and Hearsum in this issue). The continuities may be less obvious – themes highlighted by the authors here include: the special quality of writing by hand (Clare), the uncertain future of scholarly writing (Franklin), the value of ‘writing that connects’ (Taptiklis), and the notion of ‘conversation-entwined writing’ (Donaldson).

What particularly strikes us now, after studying all these contributions, is the way that every new opportunity or new form of writing seems to have a shadow side. For example, the internet is apparently facilitating and even encouraging short, informal, collaborative and responsive forms of writing (see Jackson 2009; Donaldson 2009, West 2009, Peckham 2009 – all in this issue), and anybody with a computer and an internet connection can become some kind of author, broadcaster, networker or curator. Yet, at the same time, all these opportunities and possibilities bring with them possible losses or risks. For example, people can publish opinions without taking responsibility for doing or changing anything (see Dreyfus 2009), and without providing appropriate evidence or argument (see Franklin 2009, in this issue).

Perhaps the ultimate question is, does writing have a future? Despite dire warnings to the contrary (e.g. Sperber 2002), we hold to the conviction that writing is by no means dead or dying. Rather, it is evolving and adapting within the context of breathtaking and unpredictable changes in communication technologies and habits.

Despite our optimism about writing, we remain open to be proved mistaken, and we anticipate further developments and counter-arguments with great interest.

A note on the articles

This collection has a distinctly personal accent. The authors are all people for whom writing is an important aspect of their professional lives, and most have reflected on their particular experience with writing, rather than attempting sweeping generalisations or futuristic visions. Some reveal strong feelings and concerns about trends in writing – e.g. Peter Franklin’s The future of scholarly writing and Jeremy Clare’s homage to handwriting, Of Mouse and Pen.

Starting with the ‘continuities’ group of articles, ‘conversation-entwined writing’ is a central theme that emerges from Beyond paperwork, by Alison Donaldson. This article takes a particular experience from her working life (preparing for a strategy meeting) and uses it to explore the special qualities of writing and talking. If more people thought about this before they sent off an email, we might all benefit.

Of Mouse and Pen by Jeremy Clare takes an aerogramme received from a boy in Africa as its starting point, exploring what we have gained and lost by adopting computers and all the associated new writing technologies.

Writing that connects by Theodore Taptiklis contemplates the dominance of ‘corporate writing’ in organisational life today, questioning whether it is really so fact-based and bias-free as it appears. The author goes on to praise a different kind of writing that provides a detailed glimpse of an aspect of organisational activity, and thus opens up opportunities for professional collaboration.

In The future of scholarly writing, Peter Franklin argues that better decisions tend to emanate from considered debate based on sound evidence. He goes on to advocate urgent action to equip people to judge the ‘truth’ of evidence and assertions made by writers and broadcasters in today’s hurried world. .

Turning to the ‘novelties’ group of articles, one thread connecting them is a sense that the internet is enabling and even encouraging brief, improvisational, informal and collaborative forms of writing.

Improvisational writing – Miss Smith pokes back by Paul Z Jackson takes us on a journey all the way from old-fashioned dictation to today’s voice recognition, asking the question ‘will writing soon be extinct?’. His own answer is that there will still be ‘protected spaces’ for well-crafted writing in future, as well as myriad opportunities for short, collaborative, improvised writing.

In Communicating across generations – engaging Generation Y, Stephanie Peckham relates how she undertook to understand the generation born after 1980, in an attempt to work out how her company’s website could engage this group – e.g. by adopting a fitting style and including more interactive features.

In Twitter: collaborative writing to save the world, in 140 characters or less, Rachael West argues that this new form of writing (the tweet) may offer us a way of connecting millions of people across the world and ‘prototyping’ – exploring new concepts quickly, openly and collaboratively. She argues that this feature could be helpful in tackling the financial and ecological crisis, providing new opportunities to build awareness and join in solving problems.

Finally, how could this anthology fail to shine a spotlight on blogging, so talked about today, though who knows what it will become tomorrow? In Blogging to build a body of work, Stephen Billing relates how, after completing his doctoral thesis on the subject of organisational change, he wanted both to share and develop his thinking in ways that would be of practical use to managers.

In a related article, To blog or not to blog, Steve Hearsum offers a wealth of tips and information sources on blogging, and reflects on the tension between revealing yourself and presenting your business online.

Some observations on editing an online pdf journal

When we embarked on commissioning this special issue, we set out consciously to reflect on our editorial roles in the age of the internet. In publishing a pdf document, it occurred to us that we may be dealing with some kind of hybrid. Is it helpful to regard this form as a halfway house between a printed document and an online, hyperlinked publication?

We’ve also been noticing the way conversations and writing were intertwined throughout the process. Editing this journal has meant engaging with a whole range of individuals – authors, the AMED O&P Working Party, and other interested parties – in countless and varied forms and cycles of conversations. Frequently, these conversations have been preceded, followed by and punctuated by writing over several months. Some of our writing – for example in emails and reflective notes – has itself been essentially conversational. This appears to bear out our contention about the inseparability of writing, speaking and reading (see, for example, MacKenzie 2008: 36 on ‘learning conversations in a multi-media context’, and Donaldson 2009, this issue, on ‘conversation-entwined writing’).

The commissioning and publication process for this issue has also raised for us the question of ‘what matters in internet writing?’ We’re acutely aware that, to some, the multiple iterations of the editorial process for a pdf version of O&P may seem slow and cumbersome compared to the virtually instant, more nimble, spontaneous calls and responses of the ‘purer’ internet forms of blogs, chats or discussion forums. Do publication guidelines and quality standards still matter when writing for and over the internet? Do we still need editors and proof readers? Or is this a position adopted by dinosaurs who at best are stuck in Web 1.0 mode? It seems to us that certain disciplines remain useful (see, e.g. Franklin, this issue), as do certain principles of ethics and courtesy to readers and authors, regardless of whether one is writing for traditional or newer platforms.

In the course of our work as commissioning editors for this publication, we’ve also noticed how the topic of ‘Writing Futures’ has started to influence and infuse our social lives and conversations. It may have crept up on us, but we cannot ignore any longer the fact that the internet is transforming our lives as professionals who write.

Join the conversations online and in person
The conversations and writing on this topic continue. We have created a dedicated Discussion Forum to enable you to participate online. Please feel free to visit this site and give your views on this topic. We are also planning a fourth annual collaborative writing workshop in May 2010, again in Brighton, where no doubt the issues aired here will be turned over and taken further.


Creating this November 2010 issue of e-O&P has not been an act of sole authorship. Many people have been involved, both in front of and behind the scenes, and we would like to give them the credit that is their due. In front, of course, the contributions of our authors speak for themselves. Behind, Vicky Cosstick has scrutinised drafts with eagle eye and has been a valuable sounding board for us as commissioning editors. David McAra and Deborah Booth of the O&P Working Party have beavered away anonymously to create the online conditions in which this issue appears. We are also grateful to Terry Gibson for laying the foundations of O&P’s reputation, and to everyone else who has supported us in this project.

We would also like to thank Penny Walker for suggesting such an appropriate image of the Bios robotlab writing robot to grace our front cover. In line with the conventions of Creative Commons Attribution, we would like to acknowledge that David McAra has adapted slightly an original photograph taken by Gastev in the ZKM Medienmuseum, Karlsruhe, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. Gastev uploaded this image in flickr on 6 January 2008, and Penny traced it via a Wikipedia page authored by Mirko Tobias Schaefer . Schaefer notes: ‘The installation ‘bios [bible]’ consists of an industrial robot, which writes down the bible on rolls of paper. The machine draws the calligraphic lines with high precision. Like a monk in the scriptorium it creates step by step the text. http://www.robotlab.de

Finally, in anticipation, we would like to thank all our readers, especially those who will take on this discussion in a variety of ways. Please let us and as many other people as possible know what you think.


Donaldson, A. (2008). “Striking moments – how reflective writing can develop new ways of seeing and acting”, Organisations and People vol.15, no. 1, pp: 22-27. To be available shortly on the AMED website.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. (2009): On the internet, London & New York: Routledge.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (1983): The printing revolution in early modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacKenzie, B. (2008). “Writing Interventions to Facilitate Self and Others”. Organisations and People 15(1): 35-40. To be available shortly on the AMED website.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill.

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and literacy, London: Routledge (first published 1982 by Methuen & Co).

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, MCB University Press.

Robinson, A (2007). The story of writing: alphabets, hieroglyphs & pictograms, London: Thames & Hudson.

Sperber, D. (2002). Reading Without Writing (or The Future of Writing). text-e. I. J. N. Organisers; Bibliothèque Publique d’Information (BPI), Association Européenne pour le Developpement de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche sur Internet (EURO-EDU); Sponsor: GiantChair. Virtual Symposium, 15 October 2001 – end March 2002, text-e. 2004: The debate on this ‘paper’ ran live from 31 January – 14 February 2002.

Alison Donaldson has been an independent consultant for 20 years. Her earlier working life included spells with organisations as varied as McKinsey & Company, Which? magazine, and the International Institute of Management in Berlin. In 2003 she was awarded a Doctor of Management in Organisational Change. Today she is part of a small network of experienced consultants known as ‘a working alliance’, who are helping people sharpen their leadership and influencing skills by noticing how change emerges in conversation. alidonaldson@gmail.com

Bob MacKenzie is Professor of Management Learning with the International Management Centres Business School. He also operates his own independent consultancy, which aims to support managers, leaders and learners in the digital age. Bob wrote his doctoral thesis on ‘A Learning Facilitator’s Uses of Writing’, and he is Convenor of the AMED Writers’ Group. bob_mackenzie@btopenworld.com

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