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Writing that influences - Editorial by Alison Terry and
Bob writes ...
‘Writing that influences’. What does that mean? Perhaps there is no
single, exact meaning. Influence comes in many forms, and can be
either intended or unintended. Clearly, if you look at the contents
of this anthology, it means different things to different people.
The theme for this edition is taken from the title of the 4th
Annual Collaborative Writing Workshop that was held in Brighton in
May this year, ‘Writing that influences: making waves for
Photo: Alison Donaldson
This is where Alison Terry and I, who met there for the first time,
took on responsibility for producing this anthology. Given the
novelty of our writing relationship, as Joint Editors we wondered
how we might write this editorial overview. After several attempts,
we decided to experiment by writing a separate section each, and
then see what emerged. This piece is the result. Through this
collaboration, no doubt on some occasions you will hear us speak
with one voice, and on others in our own individual voices. We
wanted there to be space for both.
As Edna O’Brien has written, ‘August is a Wicked Month’. Some of
the May Workshop participants fell prey to other pressing
preoccupations (in some cases another writing commitment). So they
were unable to send us copy to meet our August deadline. However,
subsequently, Tom Boydell and Olive Hickmott, who had not been with
us at Brighton, were inspired to write something on ‘Writing that
influences’. We’ve also included a posthumous piece by Brian
Hughes, originally written under his pseudonym B A Humar, for
reasons that will become immediately apparent when you read it.
Although we consulted each other before making any editorial
proposals for each article, Alison and I each liaised primarily
with different authors. So we decided to divide up our brief
commentaries here between us, according to those authors with whom
we were, respectively, first point of contact. In this section,
therefore, I highlight some aspects of the writing of Alison
herself, Maria Fleming, Tom Boydell and Brian Hughes. I also make
some observations about writing and influence.
has contributed a piece called ‘Memes, magic
and mental hygiene’. Here, she suggests it is time for us to
explore a new sense of responsibility for our part in shaping the
world around us, now that we have the power of global communication
at our fingertips. Alison points out that we have access to
multiple perspectives when shaping our account of reality – a
reality that we collectively redefine from one moment to the next.
This ongoing process of co-creation, where we each have a circle of
influence that is potentially global, has profound implications for
more than just change within organisations.
In her article ‘Writing @ the speed of technology’, Maria
cautions against the potentially corrosive impact of
instant digital media, fearing this may affect adversely the speed,
quantity, quality and reliability of information flow. If we’re not
careful, she believes, this will lead to uncritical, short-term
thinking. Maria urges that we pay greater attention to nurturing
critical thinking, and she enumerates ways in which writing
influences her. Finally, she advocates a return to basics, to
nurture ‘the art and craft of articulate and meaningful
As a long-standing Member of AMED, and a much-published author on
personal and organisational development, Tom Boydell
analyses and reflects on how his writing and its impact has evolved
over some 45 years of practice. In ‘Writing that had an impact’, He
suggests that writing may be as much about the writer as about the
topic under consideration. Professional change agents should find
this a fascinating personal and historical retrospective – a kind
of barometer of the shifting trends and practices in writing that
has (or has not) influenced personal and organisational development
over nearly half a century. Some well-known characters flit across
his pages. Tom also notes an unexpected emotional impact on him as
author as he reflects on his work in the writing of this piece. For
him, as for us, the struggle and the learning continues.
Unusually, we’ve included a posthumous short piece by Brian
, called ‘Façonner des mots vivants’. As a respected
adult educator and consultant in international development, Brian’s
writing was always elegant, concise and insightful. He was
passionate about writing in any form, and he excelled at what he
wrote. In this piece, he identifies four sources of ‘creative
writing’ that we believe apply equally to writing for personal and
organisational development. These strands are:
(i) ‘the external’ – the outside world of people, history and
(ii) ‘the intelligence’ – a writer’s conscious thoughts, ideas and
(iii) ‘the unconscious’ – a dimly perceived internal reservoir;
(iv) ‘words and language’ – a writer’s basic materials.
Some personal reflections on writing that influences
What do I make of the experience of writing for, and jointly
editing, this edition? In collaborating with Alison and with all
those other people mentioned in our Acknowledgements, I’ve been
compelled to return to first principles and ask ‘What do I now
understand about writing and influence?’ What follows is a
provisional response to that question.
In its many varied forms and contexts, writing is ‘an extension of
human language across time and space.’ We’re told that writing is a
distinctly (uniquely?) human phenomenon. Although it was a long
time in coming, it’s been a long time in existence, and it’s
constantly evolving. Writing is both a noun (or thing), which we
recognise in the form of text or script, and a verb (or activity) –
something we do (if we know how). It can produce good, bad or
indeterminate results, although these effects are not always
directly attributable to the writing itself. It can also, of
course, fall on stony ground. Writing has an interdependent
relationship with reading and speaking, and can influence the
writer as well as the reader or listener. Hence it is a component
of a tripartite and dynamic communication process which, in
suitable circumstances, facilitates informed thinking and action.
But it is not a panacea, and not everyone is able or willing to
write, or to read what others have written.
Are writers a breed of solitaries apart? Among other things, I’m
prepared to call myself a writer, because I regard writing as an
essential part of my professional repertoire – it’s an important
tool of my trade as a consultant and facilitator. And I take great
pleasure in reading well-written pieces, of whatever description,
be they fiction, non-fiction, poetry or journalism. But – as a
writer – I don’t see myself as special, and indeed I spend much of
my professional life writing and encouraging more clients and
colleagues to write. However, when I’m involved in a substantial
piece of writing (as now) I do seek to isolate myself temporarily
from other distractions, including human beings.
It’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that writing to influence
self and others is enabled and influenced by writing technologies.
This is the subject of several of the articles here (Alison Terry,
Maria Fleming and Bob MacKenzie).
offers various definitions for the
phenomenon of influence. One is ‘the capacity or power of persons
or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the
actions, behaviour, opinions, etc., of others.’ Time was,
astrologically, when influence was said to emanate from ‘the
radiation of an ethereal fluid from the stars’, and was often
attributed to the exercise of occult powers. For some writers,
influence is derived from intoxicants such as alcohol (Dylan
Thomas) or drugs (de Quincey, Coleridge) – ‘being under the
influence’. Influence as a term is reputed to derive from the Latin
‘influere’, meaning to flow, as in a river (and as in good
writing). And for me, a particularly appealing definition of
influence is ‘the power or capacity of causing an effect in
indirect or intangible ways’ (Legal Dictionary). According to this
view, influence is a subtle process, not always immediately
recognisable or attributable.
How do we judge writing that influences?
Aditya Chakrabortty cites a survey of writers’ obituaries in the
New York Times, written a decade ago by Franco Moretti. Moretti was
trying to gauge how literary critics judge a writer’s lifetime
achievements. Chakrabortty notes that ‘these short biographies
concerned themselves with concrete achievements: books,
contributions to human knowledge, laws.’ However, as Moretti
observes, ‘There is [in these critical assessments] no room for
projects, hopes, ideas; only what has been realised counts.’
Influence can be subtle, unpredictable, imperceptible – even
elusive. Yet – like much of what happens in organisational life –
it is often only what is concrete and measurable that is recognised
and rewarded. But that should not stop writers of any persuasion
from continuing to try to exert a positive influence through their
writing. Ultimately, perhaps, writing that influences constitutes
an act of faith or sheer cussedness.
For many organisational consultants and change agents, Steven Covey
is one of the best known writers on influence. Covey’s Habit 1
enjoins us to be proactive and expand our Circle of Influence to
diminish our Circle of Concerns. By recognising and focusing on
what we can be and do, we can exert a positive influence on
ourselves and others, and thus help to bring about positive change.
As an act of faith, perhaps, we must continue to assume that
writing can help us to expand our Circle of Influence.
Alison writes ...
A personal perspective
As a newcomer to AMED, this is my first issue of e-O&P; I feel
honoured that Bob invited me to co-edit it with him. It’s been hard
work: the theme, Writing that influences, turned out to be tricky.
What do we mean by ‘influence’? How can we measure whether it has
happened? And can it really be achieved through writing? Working
independently as an editorial consultant, I am not familiar with
the business environment of organisational change – except through
editing theses on the topic, which is how I ended up being
introduced to the AMED Writers’ Group. My own contribution to this
issue is therefore something of a philosophical meander, which may
be more abstract than typical e-O&P content.
It’s been fascinating to participate in the process of seeing our
co-contributors move from the hectic and hazardous terrain of
e-mail promises through to the solid ground of delivering a final
article. When we first planned to collaborate on this issue, I
think Bob and I had pictured ourselves comfortably reading through
all the potential contributions, exploring and consolidating our
feedback through leisurely conversations, and watching the issue
gradually take shape under our gentle guidance, much as a topiarist
might stand back to admire the latest careful snip. But August
seems to have unfolded in a time zone all of its own, so it will
come as no surprise that the reality of putting this issue together
was rather different. We are both, however, confident that the
articles that appear here belong in this particular issue rather
than to any other – not bad for such an elusive theme.
Some of this issue’s contributions
Bob MacKenzie’s Pens, Print and Pixels explores a whole network of
ideas that at first glance seemed to conflict with my own, given
his wariness of the potential ‘shallowness’ of internet-age writing
versus my belief that the world-wide web challenges us all to
assimilate complexity and paradox in our writing. Indeed, prior to
tackling our first draft, we wondered whether to make our editorial
the forum for some kind of response to each other’s views. Yet we
found our ideas slotting together in ways we hadn’t anticipated,
and through responding to each other’s writing we found ourselves
exploring unfamiliar paths that held surprises for us both. As he
commented towards the end of this process, when I thanked him for a
Eureka moment described below, ‘perhaps it illustrates the
symbiotic relationship between writers, writing and conversation
(even if conversation is an email exchange)’.
In People, Politics and Paradigms Vicky Cosstick charts the course
of a consultant’s report, noting with wry equanimity that it is
just as likely to drop below the horizon as it is to soar
magnificently in the direction intended. From a very different
perspective, Olive Hickmott’s Healing Stories explains what kinds
of narrative help her clients to overcome a whole range of
difficulties – including dyslexia, her past experience of which
lends extraordinary passion and insight to her writing.
Is anyone reading this?
Writing my own article, Memes, Magic and Mental Hygiene, nudged a
tumble of ideas that didn’t stop with the conclusion of the
article. A friend who read the first draft described how
overwhelmed he feels by the explosion of writing in the internet
age: ‘Like those online photo galleries,’ he said, ‘All those
millions of photos being uploaded every minute, but who’s actually
looking at them?’. It seems that everyone is writing, everyone has
something to say; but who’s actually reading any of it?
Well, we simply can’t read everything. Someone might once have made
it their life’s task to read through the entire library at ancient
Alexandria; ambitious though that would have been, it may have been
within the realms of possibility if they read fast and lived long.
Now, however, the equivalent ‘library’ is ballooning outwards
faster than anyone can keep track of it – there can no longer be
any sense of working our way along a well-ordered shelf.
Yet we do read, constantly. And it’s surprising how often I find
myself reading, quite coincidentally, about something that has only
recently captured my interest. ‘When the student is ready, the
teacher will appear’ is one ancient proverb that certainly seems to
apply to things I find myself reading: I think I’ve chosen them at
random until I turn the page and find that ‘Aha!’ moment, suddenly
realising that I’ve found the precise piece of the jigsaw I’d been
Find your own truths
The proliferation of writing nowadays means that it’s possible to
make a statement about virtually anything – both trivial and
significant – and find some text to back it up. This has
extraordinary implications for academia and science, where
supporting references have traditionally been considered the stamp
of authority that guarantees reliability of information. A medical
writer friend was recently briefed by a major pharmaceutical
company to draft something that made various ‘aspirational’
statements about their new drug – then to find the clinical
evidence and supply appropriate ‘robust’ citations. Such a
cart-before-horse approach is easy enough with PubMed, a digital
archive of the world’s published medical research: presumably
launched as a tool to aid scientific clarity, it is already a
towering Babel of conflicting randomized, controlled trials that
demonstrate, refute and frankly contradict. Whether in the field of
medical science or some other arena, the avalanche of conflicting
expertise suggests that we must each become our own authority (and
I’m sure the etymology of ‘authority’ isn’t wasted on a group of
authors!). We are literally creating our own truth, writing it into
awareness for ourselves and others.
How do we recognise our truth when we see it? When do the words
ignite some irresistible quality of brightness? One thing is
certain: unless something deeply integrated into our own experience
resonates with the writer’s perspective, their words wash over us
without disturbing the familiar rock-pool of our interior universe.
In this sense, we can never really write to influence anyone – or
rather, it is inevitable that our writing influences; but we have
no control over how. Like everything we do and say, what we write
can have consequences that are often quite the reverse of what we
intended; and yet there will be the occasional reader, perhaps
accidentally coming across our writing, who ‘gets’ what we are
trying to say, more perfectly than we could have hoped to express
Sometimes the truth can take us by surprise in our own writing.
Very occasionally, I write something down that almost fizzes in my
veins when I look at it, because it draws the veil aside, suddenly
making visible what I recognise as a powerful core belief. This
happened in my work with Bob to bring this issue of e-O&P to
publication. In an email encouraging him to explore his ideas in
greater detail, I found myself writing: ‘We all carry the answers
inside us, and if we let our ideas loose to play on the page we
have a much better chance of finding out what they are than if we
defer to ‘authorities’… I’m passionate about this because I think
humanity as a whole is trying to make sense of things and we must
all contribute what we have to the pot, now that we can – otherwise
a subtle but important ingredient might be left out’. No sooner had
I written this than I understood that this has long been the
motivation behind my work, not to mention the force that drove me
to put together the ‘Verbalchemy
workshop that I’m facilitating on 19 November. (Click
Order in chaos
In a relatively short space of time (my parent’s lifetime), the rug
of apparent certainty has been swept out from under our feet. No
one is in control; no one has the answers; and whatever our
original intentions, we cannot know what influence our writing
might have. This may seem overwhelming; but just because we don’t
understand what’s going on, does that mean there is no sense to it?
Just because we’re not in control, does that mean chaos reigns?
‘As above, so below’ is a Hermetic principle that can be observed
in many ways at every level of reality (such as the fractal
patterns of subatomic particles mirroring those of galactic
clusters). When the bigger picture is too vast to contemplate, it
can help to focus on the detail. The German biologist and
philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) is renowned for his beautiful
drawings. Capturing the intricate detail of microorganisms such as
diatoms, protozoa and radiolaria, he reveals each to be a living
mandala: proof, if any were needed, that the designs of Nature –
evolving organically in ways that we don’t even see, much less
control – are exquisitely beautiful and perfect. I have chosen some
examples to illustrate my article.
As we hurtle ever faster into increasing complexity and confusion,
science is discovering what the mystics have always known: that
what looks like chaos to us turns out, on closer inspection, to be
a self-regulating process of great subtlety and harmonic depth.
Indeed, it seems to be human intervention with the aim of
‘improving’ things that throws a spanner in the works. I believe
that the same is true of our collective consciousness: in its own
way, in its own time, it is doing what it needs to do, learning
what it needs to learn.
Something is taking shape; and our job is not to control this, nor
to despair that it’s all beyond our comprehension, but simply to
represent our own truth as clearly as we can – and then let go of
it, trusting in whatever outcome emerges. Whatever pressure we are
under to hope or pretend that our writing has influence, I think we
must yield to the understanding that it may not have the influence
we intend; but the ultimate result will be far more perfect than
anything within the scope of our own design.
Alison and Bob write ...
Finally, do check the Writing News section for a list of literary
events that might capture your interest and spark your creativity!
Please also use the Forum to enter into dialogue with the authors
or editors, post news of any events that are local to you, or to
write a review of something you’ve participated in.
Despite the stereotype of the solitary writer, writing is often a
collaborative process, at least in different phases of its
development. So in many respects, the contents of this issue have
been a joint effort, co-created or influenced by many people in a
variety of capacities. The authors, of course, have made an obvious
contribution through their respective articles. However, it’s worth
acknowledging that, one way or another, all our contributions have
benefitted from conversations with others about emerging ideas and
drafts, and from reference to other writings. We hope these
conversations will continue, and we’ve created a space here on the
AMED website to facilitate this.
A great deal of work has gone on behind the scenes before this
edition of e-O&P could go live. As core members of the
e-O&P Working Party, Deborah Booth and David McAra have
willingly and expertly provided backroom technical support, as well
as second or third opinions whenever we’ve faced an editorial
dilemma. Ned Seabrook constructed a template and process that’s
made it easier for us to convert final copy from Word into pdf
format. Belina Raffy came up with the image for our cover page.
Alison Donaldson and Vicky Cosstick co-facilitated the May Writing
Workshop with Bob MacKenzie, where the seeds of this anthology were
sown, with contributions from the other participants. As a result
of the efforts of all these people, and of the many others who have
played less obvious but still vital roles, we hope that you will be
touched – and perhaps even influenced – by some of the writing that
you’ll come across here.
Keeping the conversation going
We hope that you’ll find something here of interest to you, and
we’d welcome a continuation of this dialogue. So we’ve created a
blog space for each author here, on the AMED website, to which we
hope you’ll contribute. The writing and learning continues. …
and Bob MacKenzie
About the authors
an independent writing and editing consultant who has developed a
seminar, Verbalchemy, on bringing writing to life within
organisations – click
for details of the workshop in Brighton on Friday 19
November. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Bob is an independent coach, consultant, facilitator, and writer.
He is also Professor of Management Learning with the International
Management Centres Association business school. Bob has become
increasingly fascinated by the role that writing plays in a
professional’s repertoire, and is Convenor of the AMED Writers’
. This writers’ group aspires to generate those very
pre-conditions for writing that influences imagined by Spufford.
welcomes contact arising from what he’s written here via e-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the Forum