What Professionals Need to Know about Writing Well

Almost all white-collar workers believe that good writing skills are important to their careers. In fact, strong writing and communication skills are among the most important criteria in hiring and promotion decisions. Yet, many current and aspiring executives and professionals are not skilled writers.

In fact, poor writing costs employers billions of dollars each year. They also spend several million more on remedial writing seminars for their employees. Unfortunately, these seminars usually involve participants for only a few hours or a few days and at best sensitize them to certain elements of writing, usually through lectures and short exercises. Participants often return to work without having mastered the lessons of the seminar and without retaining fundamental knowledge. Importantly, they rarely change their approach to writing.

The result is that businesses pay twice for poor writing: once for writing that is misunderstood, misdirected, or not done and again for writing instruction whose effects are neither satisfactory nor lasting.

The Writing Taught in School is Not the Writing Required at Work

Much of what we believe about writing we learned in school. One common misconception is that writing is a single, generalized skill that can be applied in any situation with equal success. In the US, this misconception is rooted in the way writing instruction developed in schools.

After the Civil War, for the first time, large numbers of people were able to attend college. Language instruction based on the Greek and Latin classics gave way to studying American literature, and writing instruction began to focus on usage, grammar, and mechanics. Good writing came to be seen as the absence of errors. Grammatical “correctness” eventually became not only a measure of good writing, it also became a measure of “character, intellect, morality, and good taste.” People who expressed themselves in grammatically correct prose were seen as educated, honorable, and intelligent, whereas those who did not were thought to be less educated, less intelligent, and even less moral. Probably for this reason, writing free of grammatical mistakes is the single most important criterion reported by corporations in their hiring decisions: they can’t afford to look “uneducated” to their clients and customers.

Later, when composition instruction was divorced from the study of literature, writing was promoted as a general “skill” that students had to master “to achieve in almost any subject.” Writing skills were supposed to be adequate after high school, but they could still be refined in college English classes. However, “skills” are also acquired from drill and practice and by following procedures, so writing was taught apart from its application in most academic fields. Thus, freshman composition came to be seen as a service course supporting other academic departments, reinforcing the idea that writing is single, undifferentiated skill. Fortunately, most colleges no long approach writing this way, but the misconception persists.

A second common misconception is that writing well in school means that one can write well at work without additional training. However, writing in school usually focuses on meeting the development needs of the writer, whereas writing at work must focus on meeting readers’ needs for information. Further, academic programs are not designed to develop expert writers, outside of specific programs to do so. Few professors have the time, the training, or the desire to teach writing. Most assignments are unrelated to those encountered after college, and students typically do not write enough at any time in their education to develop true expertise.

In school, we usually learn how to write for one person (the instructor), who knows more about the topic than we do, who has no need to use the information the we provide, and who we can ask questions about his or her expectations. Assignments are often based on the subjective choices students make about a topic and their approach to it; indeed, justifying these choices often is the assignment. Short-answer essays are widely used and are popular with teachers and students alike for their brevity, but these essays require “writing without composing.”

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These conditions differ greatly from those at work, where there may be hundreds of readers, most of whom know less about the topic than the writer does and who have to use the information the writer provides. In addition, good writing includes identifying the audience and its characteristics, the purpose of the communication, and the media appropriate for the topic and the occasion of the communication. Success is measured by how well the text meets the needs of readers, not by “how well it is written” or by the writer’s “quality of thought.” Writing under these conditions requires a different set of mental processes than those needed to please a professor.

The difference between writing in school and writing at work is readily apparent in business and industry. Although 90% of graduates believe that college prepared them “pretty well” or “extremely well” for the writing skills they needed at work, and although 40% believed they had acquired “top-level skills,” employers report that only about 25% have good writing skills. Further, up to 95% of academic officers believe they are preparing their students well for the workplace, but only 10% of business leaders agree with them. Many personnel directors report that the writing skills of up to 75% of college graduates are inadequate.

How to Improve Writing Skills

Research shows that learning to write well is a time- and labor-intensive process, which is a major reason such training is not routinely available in high schools, undergraduate courses, graduate schools, and business or professional programs. What works is intense, prolonged critical thinking and writing practice under the guidance of a skilled instructor who challenges the writer on each and every point of the writing; provides prompt, detailed, and comprehensive feedback on each revision; and insists on high standards of accuracy and clarity.

The basis of this approach is the Socratic method, which is the oldest and still the most powerful technique for developing critical thinking. Through prolonged and intense questioning, writers fundamentally change the way they think about writing. Simply, old habits of thinking have to be replaced with new ones. Old habits die hard, however, and often take much time and thought to change.

Another way of looking at this approach is to think of intelligence as “knowing what to attend to.” Experts “attend” to different things than beginners do. Becoming an expert writer is thus associated with “attending” to certain aspects of the content and presentation of the writing and not being distracted by other aspects. Writing requires many assumptions, often made unconsciously, and each needs to be identified and evaluated if new thought processes are to be developed

The kind of training described above can be expensive, but the investment can have great returns. Good writers are good thinkers, and they stay good writers and good thinkers throughout their careers. The real problem is finding a program with the intensity, duration, and instruction that can make substantial and lasting improvements in writing skills. The Writing-Reading Intensive Training Experiences (WRITE) Program, available through Tom Lang Communications and Training International, provides such instruction.


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