If I’m going to build a business on the idea that business writing skills have deteriorated and people need to be better, faster writers at work, then it behooves me to take a step backward and address the source of the problem. So let’s a take a look at three reasons why our writing skills are falling short of where they need to be in the work environment. One, we aren’t learning how to write well in school; two, our standards have been lowered; and three, we are all going so dang fast—too fast.
Reason 1: Poor writing skills start in school
I recently came across a research report from 2004 quoting HR professionals on the sorry state of writing among recent college graduates, and that was 14 years ago! Quotes from the HR professionals surveyed include statements like:
- “The skills of new college graduates are deplorable—across the board…”
- “Recent graduates aren’t even aware when things are wrong…”
- “People’s writing skills are not where they need to be. …many employees don’t understand the need for an appropriate level of detail, reasoning, structure, and the like.”
Yet, I can go back even farther in time, at the risk of exposing my age, as well as farther back in the educational system. I was a graduate student in the early ‘90s, and I could see the decline in writing skills way back then. I had one class full of freshmen who were considered to be the cream of the crop of their high schools, yet their writing was deplorable, no better than the writing of the students in all my other classes.
We’re not teaching writing skills in high school. Then writing is not stressed in college like it used to be unless you’re earning a liberal arts degree. As a result, college students aren’t learning the basics of strong writing. On top of that, they simply lack the practice it takes to master the process of writing because it’s not asked of them. Then when they do graduate and get hired, they are expected to know how to write well already. Business writing skills won’t be part of their on-the-job training. (Although they might not get hired in the first place if they submit poorly written application letters and resumes!)
Yet a potentially bigger problem exists: These graduates don’t know they write poorly, nor do they realize that strong business writing skills require more than good grammar. Writing well at work means not only knowing there from their from they’re. It’s the ability to communicate clearly, concisely, accurately and persuasively. But if the patient isn’t aware of the disease, why would they seek a cure? If a young person entering the job market doesn’t recognize their own poor writing skills, they won’t seek to improve nor will they recognize the poor writing skills of others, and the problem only perpetuates and gets worse…as plenty of HR people can attest, I’m sure.
Reason 2: Social media and technology have dumbed down our writing
On the second point, we have been dumbed down by the quick and lazy ways we communicate via text and Snapchat and Twitter and Facebook. We can blame email too, I think, because email is so instant. It’s easy to dash off a message—and even easier to do so carelessly.
Dumbing down? Getting lazy? I resemble that remark!
I confess: I am guilty of this! Obviously as someone who writes for a living, I am careful and considerate when writing for clients. I would not ever take a shortcut in the professional part of my life. But personally, I started taking all kinds of shortcuts. I find myself typing texts to my kids in all lowercase letters because I’m in a hurry, or using an emoji in place of a word, and even getting lazy in emails to clients I know well. If I had a dollar for every time I typed “LOL”… OK, let’s not go there.
I didn’t realize it was happening, however, until I recently read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” for the third time and had an epiphany: I’ve been getting lazy. I made the decision that I must be more diligent in my writing, no matter what I am writing. If I’m texting my kids or my husband or my mom, I still need to use proper grammar and spelling. In my emails to clients, I need to raise the bar, no matter how many years they’ve worked with me or how familiar we are. Technology makes it easy for me to be careless and lazy, but I can choose not to be sucked into a dumbing down of my writing.
Because a dumbing down has happened, is happening, and will only get worse.
(No, George Eliot doesn’t talk about careless writing as part of her story, but I am inspired to take more care when I read her carefully crafted dialog and descriptions, and remember that she didn’t have a word processor or even a typewriter—only ink and paper. Yet she managed that masterpiece, with every word prudently chosen and wisely used.)
Reason 3: We are going too fast!
The third reason why our writing sucks probably ties into the other two, and it is a sign of the times for sure: We’re going too fast.
Yes, it’s as straightforward as that: We are simply going too fast to take the time to write well. Our business writing skills are hindered by a lack of time, not just a lack of skill. In the work world, it’s hurry up and move on to the next thing. Dash off that email so you can dash into that meeting. Type that message so you can get back to typing that report. It’s go go go go at work, but not write, revise, edit, proofread. And our writing sucks as a result.
And messaging enabled by today’s technology makes it worse, with the barrage of messages we contend with every day putting even more pressure on us to go fast. Not only are our workdays crammed full of tasks and meetings and what not, but our inboxes are crammed full of emails we are “supposed to” respond to. According to one survey, we desk workers spend one-third of our workday on email. And for those of us who also work at home in the off hours, half of that work time is spent on email. That adds up 17 hours per week total, just on email!
Wait, it gets worse: 30% of that email is either unimportant or not urgent. And if 30% of those messages aren’t important, that means we’re spending over 5½ hours every single week on emails that don’t matter! (I did the math.) Over the course of a year, that adds up to 291 hours spent on unimportant emails! Can you imagine how much more productive we could be if we got back that 291 hours–or even half of that?
Or, here’s another idea: We could use that time to slow down and take care with our writing. I predict that as long as we have this hurry hurry hurry mentality at work, we will have a continued decline in already sucky writing skills.
What can we do about it?
The solution to every problem starts with awareness that there is a problem. And we know there’s a problem with our business writing skills! What do we do about it? Well, we aren’t going to change the educational system, unfortunately, but maybe as employers we can introduce basic writing skills workshops as part of the onboarding new employees go through. As individuals, we can choose to raise the bar in our social media and technology use, with complete sentences and good grammar no matter the vehicle we’re using or the recipient we’re writing too. And we can slow down. Maybe it’s possible to ignore the unimportant messages, and use that time instead to take longer to craft our own messages. Maybe simply choosing to re-read an email before sending it will help us realize we could tweak that message for clarity. Or maybe simply eliminating distractions will help us improve our business writing skills.
I don’t pretend to have a quick fix to the ongoing downhill slide in American writing skills, or the many reasons causing it. But I do know it needs fixing—and that every little bit helps, starting with me and you.