What a flight delay taught me about writing

What a flight delay taught me about writingWe’ve all been there.  You get to the airport nice and early to be sure you can make it through security, only to find out your flight has been delayed.  As opposed to being bummed out, though, I took an opportunity to do a brief psychology experiment.  I know what I’d typically do if delayed (make calls and answer emails), but what was everyone else doing?  Here’s what a flight delay taught me about writing.

The one thing that is most scarce at the airport

Who knew a power outlet could be so valuable?  Just as recently as a few years ago, it was food that was at a premium at the airport. On second thought, I suppose that’s still true.  A chicken sandwich for $12?  Sounds fair.  Today, this image is not at all uncommon –

The one thing that is most scarce at the airport

When the airport was designed, these outlets were probably installed for vacuums and the (occasional) carpet cleaner. Now they’re much more valuable than that $12 chicken sandwich. Why the need for so much power, though?  Are travelers that dedicated to their jobs that their power is running dry from doing business? Let’s see…

What people are doing while waiting at the airport

Two caveats – this was an experiment with a very small sample set (20 people) and it was 7pm on a Wednesday (outside of the typical business day).  We were also two hours into a flight delay, so maybe brain drain had kicked in.  Of 20 people using electronic devices, here’s what was happening –

  • Two were on their laptops writing emails
  • One was watching a movie on their laptop
  • One was playing a game on their tablet
  • One was playing a game on their phone
  • One was texting/typing on their phone
  • One was actually talking on their phone
  • Thirteen were reading on their phones

In this brief sampling of people, 65% were reading something on their phones. This brings us to two observations –

  1. The screens at which we stare have gotten smaller after growing and growing for decades.
  2. People probably read more than we ever have.  Given, we’re not reading more books, but were reading nonetheless.

Why this is super important

If you had told someone in 1999 that we’d be reading more in 2014 than we did back then, he or she would think you’re crazy. That 1999 person  – let’s call him Prince – would be experiencing the adolescence of the Internet (slow dial-up connections outside of universities) and have the option of hundreds of cable TV stations. “Read?” Prince says, “Why the heck would you do that? Why take the time to read a book when you could just watch the movie in a couple hours?”

What Prince couldn’t understand then is that we now decide on the content we want to experience instead of someone deciding for us.

Back to those 20 people waiting for the flight…

Looking at those numbers again, only four people were producing something (writing emails, the phone call, typing on the phone), while the other were consuming something.  At this point (two hours in) of the flight delay, people were starved for not only power, but for something to do.  Does this apply outside of the airport too? The last time you were at a restaurant, how many tables of two were both on their respective phones?  Call this boredom, impatience, Digital Age ADD, whatever.  This bring us to the most important point of this article –

The ability to write well is more valuable a skill than ever beforeThe ability to write well is more valuable a skill than ever before

If 80% of those delayed passengers were consuming content while only 20% were producing something, your ability to communicate well in written form is only going to continue to be more valuable.

Did you know that in 2013, the average mobile data use in North America nearly doubled?  Think everyone is sending huge spreadsheets for work?

“Wait a minute,” you might say.  That’s because people are watching a lot of videos. And you’d be right. Do you know what else makes up that data usage, though? Status updates (Facebook), tweets (Twitter), photos with captions (Instagram), photos with instructions (Pinterest), etc.  Whether we’re writing as part of an explanation, writing before recording a video (a script), or just typing text, our language skill aptitude is on display.

Writing helps your brain too

We all know what’s in our own heads. Until we take time to write those thoughts – distilling them, if you will – I propose we really don’t know exactly what we’re thinking. Just as teaching something will make you better at that subject, forcing yourself to write will make you better at understanding yourself.  Are you expressing your ideas clearly or suffering from the Curse of Knowledge?

Are you convinced you should take the time to write?  Do you need some help with this idea?  See this article from our site.  Hint: you already are an expert in something and just need to practice saying it.

Spencer X Smith

Spencer helps you save time through teaching digital marketing and social media strategies in plain English, after proving they actually work for himself first. He also is an instructor at the University of Wisconsin and a columnist for InBusiness.

  • Well stated! When I read this post, it was amazing to me that you wrote it while waiting at the airport. You obviously are an excellent writer. For those of us for whom writing is more time consuming, are there suggestions to make this easier, or does it really come down to “practice”? ie. the more we write, the better we become. Thanks so much for your great ideas on this!

    • Spencer X Smith says:

      Thanks Barbara! I believe that – like most other things – the more we practice, the better we get. Trying to distill our thoughts onto paper (or onto a computer screen) is something that will feel unnatural at first – at least it did for me – but the more we do it, the better we’ll get. Something that helps me is having a distinct format to follow. With most articles I say, “What are three things I’m trying to convey?” and add color to each idea. Sometimes it’s four points, and sometimes it’s only two, but starting with three makes the process a little more palatable.

      It’s a little bit like exercise. If I tell myself I’m going to walk for 20 minutes every day, that 20 minutes sometimes turns into 30 minutes, an hour, etc. because the process is especially enjoyable that day. We can take that same approach with writing. Some days are average while others are really easy and the words just flow.

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