Not Ready for Writing at Work

According to the National Commission on Writing, American corporations spend about $3.1 billion a year on poor writing.  The costs of the poor writing skills of employees include many things, including training programs to teach employees to write, lost goodwill and lost customers due to bad communications, the cost of mistakes due to miscommunication, the cost of recalling and reprinting documents that are written incorrectly, time wasted trying to write.

Yet colleges, at least the ones I have been associated with, put a lot into their writing programs.  Most offer two classes, introductory composition and researching.  All have a tutoring lab to offer additional assistance to students.  Writing Across the Curriculum programs validate the need for writing in all disciplines.

Why isn’t this working?  The reasons are many and complicated, but two are at the forefront for me.

The first is student attitudes.  Most of the students who register for my writing classes—and I’m sure the same is true for the majority of programs—do so only because they are required.  When I take a little poll of my classes, asking who took the class because they love to write or because they really want to learn to write, usually only two or three students raise their hands.

In general, students aren’t convinced that writing will play a major part of their careers.  They also aren’t convinced they can learn to write: some people are born with the talent and some are not, they believe.  These students, when presented with information about how to write better pretty much ignore it and continue to do what they have always done, even if ineffective.

The second reason is students want rules and structure.  It’s also easier to teach writing as a set of rules and structures—that is why the Five-paragraph Theme and grammar instruction are so pervasive, especially in high school.  Students today are trained to learn the right and wrong answers. Writing isn’t like that.  The best writing teachers offer guidelines and teach the process.  What makes good writing depends so much on context, audience, and purpose.  Students hate that kind of ambiguity.

The “rules” of writing taught in college for academic writing don’t transfer to the workplace.  Students need to learn the critical thinking and analytical skills to assess their various writing situations and make decisions about how to communicate effectively.  That is difficult to teach, difficult to learn, and difficult to grade.

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