People often (i.e. twice so far) ask me what sort of skills they should focus on developing to be successful in their careers. It doesn’t matter if that person is a software engineer, teacher, fire fighter, or professional air hockey player; my answer is always the same: “Learn how to write well.”
A survey by the Associated Press revealed that writing is considered the most valued skill by company executives. The survey also noted that companies believe 80% of their employees lacked the necessary writing skills to do their jobs.
The sad truth is that, unless you’re in an industry where the primary job responsibility is writing in English, you likely work with a lot of people who are terrible writers. Heck, you’re probably not that great of a writer yourself. (My apologies if you are.)
There is probably no line of business where this is more true than the computer industry. Day in and day out, I receive e-mails and read reports that are so poorly written you’d suspect they were composed by newcomers to the English language. No, they’re not newcomers at all, I’m afraid.
Here’s an e-mail that arrived in my inbox a few days ago.
Can yuo look in to the problem Seatle with they’re [NAME of SUPER-SECRET COMPUTER SYSTEM OMITTED]. There saying its do to [NAME OF STUPID PERSON WHO BROKE OUR SYSTEM (AGAIN) OMITTED].
I fixed Seattle’s problem, but I might need to order a new monitor to replace the one I’ve been smacking my head against over e-mails like these.
Why Cant i Rite Good?
So why do basic English spelling and grammar skills elude so many of our professionals? Is it something in the water at work? Is the English language just too hard to use? The real answers are simple but nonetheless shocking.
- Schools don’t teach it. Sure, your child might pick up a bit of sentence structure here and proper punctuation there, but the state of English language education in our school systems today is pitiful.
- Parents don’t expect it. Yes, I’m one of those people who likes to partly blame parents for the failure of our education system. Typically, without some intervening force (like tutoring or after-school programs), a child will never surpass the writing skills of his or her parents. Multiply this by several generations and you’ll see that writing in America has entered a downward spiral.
- Jobs don’t require it. How can your boss ask you to be a good writer when he or she isn’t one herself? For all I know, the person who sent me the e-mail above may be a literary genius in his manager’s eyes.
- The internet sure doesn’t help. I suspect 30% of teen-aged computer users have never once pressed the SHIFT key. And punctuation? I won’t even go there.
Learning How to Write Well
“Nick, I’m afraid I might be one of these people who can’t write well. What can I do to fix this?”
While there’s no quick fix that’ll make you a sensational writer overnight, there are some steps you can take to gradually improve your writing ability–at least to the level a mature adult should possess.
- Write for fun. As is the case with many other skills, practice is the best way to improve your writing. You’ll also find that you learn best when you’re having fun at the same time. So if you can find something you enjoy writing about, try to set aside some time everyday to whip out a pen and paper or keyboard and screen. Starting a blog is also a great way to exercise your writing skills.
- Read for fun. Learn by example. Pick up a book or magazine and just read. Pay attention to how writers structure their thoughts. Also closely examine their use of punctuation so you’ll know the rules of using semicolons and em-dashes for yourself.
- Take an adult writing/communication course. Some larger workplaces will have classes geared toward developing effective communication and writing skills. If yours doesn’t have one, consider taking a writing improvement course at a community college.
- Learn a foreign language. No, I’m not saying you should abandon English and start fresh with a new language. It can be hard for adults to pick up grammar rules that go against the way they currently write. But learning grammar becomes a bit easier when it’s taught in the context of a foreign language course. Most of what I know about English grammar was taught in my high school French classes.
- Write with your kids. Hopefully you’re already reading to your kids. Now how about writing with them? Encourage proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar in their e-mails and instant messaging. Look over their written homework and suggest changes that will enhance the quality of their writing. This might not directly help your own writing skills, but it’ll reverse that downward spiral of writing in America I mentioned earlier.
Writing–The Communication Technique That Separates Us From Dolphins
What if all you do is write in computer code all day, sending out the occasional report or e-mail? Why should you care if your writing is any better than that of an 11-year-old? Hopefully these reasons will convince you that the written English language is worth salvaging.
- Good writing saves time. E-mails and documents that are well-written are easier to read and understand. You can save people (including yourself!) some serious time if you communicate your thoughts precisely the first time you write them. Otherwise, they’ll keep coming back to you for clarification.
- People will think more of you if you write well. Top-notch writing is a sign of people who are well educated, serious about their careers, and always striving to improve themselves. You’ll come off as more persuasive if what you’re saying is written in understandable English.
- Excellent writers stand out. Comparing samples written by good and bad writers is like setting night against day. If you have two potential employees of otherwise equal skill, good writing could make all the difference between who gets the spot and who will have to keep writing cover letters for job applications.
- Writing is a permanent judge of your character. Unlike conversations which people start to forget as soon as they happen, your writing can be read over again and again. Make sure that anything written you give people ensures they’re taking away a true representation of your best work.
See, writing well is important! I’d even go as far as saying that good writing can make you more friends, more money, and better in bed. Well, maybe not that last one… unless you’re writing love letters. So yeah, good writing leads to great sex!