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Writing Skills: More Important Than Ever on the Job
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Be sure to read our main career/job skills article, How to Capitalize on the Looming Skills Shortage.
In 1997, while writing the book Write Your Way to a Higher GPA, Dr. Randall Hansen and I cited several studies about not only the importance of writing skills, but about how too many workers, especially at the entry level, lack these skills. [See: The Importance of Good Writing Skills.] More than a decade later, little has changed except that writing has become even more important.
Given the relative informality of e-mail, it may surprise some to know that e-mail's ubiquity is a major reason writing skills have become so crucial. E-mail is so heavily and globally used to communicate in the workplace -- replacing the telephone as the primary communications venue -- that unclear, garbled, poorly written e-mails waste time, money, and productivity. R. Craig Hogan, who runs an online school for business writing, said in 2004 that "e-mail is a party to which English teachers have not been invited ... People just let their thoughts drool out onto the screen."
Another impetus for better writing skills is that demand is greater; two-thirds of salaried workers in large U.S. companies have jobs that require writing, reported the College Board's National Commission on Writing in 2004, and bringing workers' skills up to speed requires $3.1 billion annually in training. The study described writing as a "threshold skill" for employee selection and promotion. Columnist Andrea Kay adds that professionals spend up to 30 percent of their days -- more than two hours daily -- writing.
A 2006 Canadian study indicated that that country's workers are "deluged with written communications," according to Neill MacMillan, president of study sponsor Communicare. "Since workers are diverted from key tasks, Canadian businesses have a major productivity gap," MacMillan adds. The email survey of 528 Canadian respondents indicates that workers lose hours reading at work, miss key information in materials, waste time, and make errors. The Communicare survey reveals that 58 percent of Canadian workers spend 2-4 hours per day reading written text (emails, reports, memos, intra/internet). Asked to identify all the costs of poorly written communications, 85 percent cite wasted time, 70 percent identify lost productivity, and 63 percent describe errors. The problem with written communications is widespread, as 71 percent have heard co-workers complain many times about poorly written communications.
Jack Shulman in Harvard Business Review points out that better writing can improve the customer experience, as well as enhance product development, through well-written instruction manuals, process descriptions, and procedure guides.
As noted in our article, How to Capitalize on the Looming Skills Shortage, a 2006 study by a consortium of business-research organizations especially singled out writing skills as deficient among high-school, community-college, and four-year college grads. A leader from one of the organizations, Susan R. Meisinger, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resources Management, said, "The importance of learning to communicate in writing and orally is paramount. Communication is a critical skill in the workplace and one that many new entrants lack."
The College Board's 2004 study revealed that a majority of U.S. employers said that a third of workers fail to meet the writing requirements of their positions. "Writing skills are fundamental in business, a survey respondent in that report said. "It's increasingly important to be able to convey content in a tight, logical, direct manner, particularly in a fast-paced technological environment."
While improving even one worker's weak writing skills is a daunting undertaking, a few tips and suggestions may bring a bit of clarity to the workplace writing scene and help those who write on the job to develop a competitive advantage. Kay, for example, advises that "if you want to move up in your career, writing is key because the higher up you go, the more writing you'll do."
- Author Guy Kawasaki advises new workforce entrants to learn to write a one-page report and a five-sentence e-mail. The College Board also suggests brevity and limiting written communication to key points.
- Writing in Toronto's Globe and Mail, Ingrid Sapona exhorts writers to focus on style, organization, layout, and reader-focused writing. The easiest way to address the last point is to "imagine you are telling a story to an intelligent friend," Sapona writes. Use storytelling to establish rapport and avoid dull, tedious prose.
- The College Board's study noted that the most sought-after skills are accuracy, clarity, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and conciseness.
- Experts caution against overly formal, stiff writing, as well as cliches, such as "at the end of the day."
- Copious resources are available on the Web to help with writing, including those with no cost, and others like Hogan's Business Writing Center that require tuition or site-license-based BackDRAFT, a database-driven software application that features documentaries, interactive exercises, and results-modified exams. According to BackDRAFT's Website, the application tailors a course for each student, and delivers five semesters of lessons in a curriculum that takes 20 hours on average to complete. Bullfighter is a no-cost download to reduce jargon and wordiness.
- Short writing workshops lasting only a few days may not be enough to revamp writing skills, Hogan says. The focus instead should be on improving writing actually conducted in the workplace.
- Workplace writers should take the time to revise their work, not an easy proposition among entry-level workers accustomed to text- and instant-messaging. Reading your writing aloud will likely also uncover errors.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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