I once updated a senior colleague on a project and he told me to hold tight in his office — he had written a sentence, the previous year in a report, that I could use in mine. He looked for this sentence, quite literally, for twenty-five minutes. (“No, not that document, was it this project? It might have been after…”)
He found it and emailed it to me. It was twelve reasonably predictable words (that needed to be tweaked). At most, it would have taken me four minutes to write a similar sentence and edit it from scratch. Yet, my colleague was exceptionally pleased. He seemed certain that he had done me the tremendous favor of not forcing me to create a new language.
In businesses, right now, there seems to be a widespread fear of writing. Employees can exhibit the same, reflexively avoidant, behavior toward writing as my freshman English class. Students and employees alike seem to go to any length necessary to not rethink or reassess information. There are two notable drawbacks to this: one, it often wastes time; two, it wastes the critical thinking assessment inherent in the creation of language. When we don’t write, we miss an opportunity to think.
What does Writing have to do with ‘The Great Gatsby?’
Why are we so reflexively defensive when it comes to writing?
Blame, at least in part, to The Great Gatsby and its university-level equivalent. Or, at least, blame the poor teaching of those books and essays.
When our high school teacher said The Great Gatsby “is about the failure of American capitalism,” we knew darn well what we needed to put in that essay to receive an “A.” We were seventeen and had no comprehensive understanding of American capitalism, its successes, or its failures.
We wrote someone else’s assessment, probably a little lifelessly. If we had a different interpretation of The Great Gatsby (it’s about unrequited love, it’s about fantasy being greater than reality…) on a certain level, we internalized that our own interpretation of the work was incorrect.
How and Why to Invest in Writing Skills
Although not all, far too many high schools and universities instruct students what to think instead of how to think.
In our businesses, this shows up in our fearful relationship to writing. In addition to leaving students bored, this has also left students unpracticed in two necessary steps in critical thinking: one is creating their own observations and assessments, the second is arguing for those assessments in language. Eventually, of course, there was bound to be a business cost for this.
In terms of actual cost: fifty people in an organization (senior and junior), making on average $50/hour, wasting an hour a day to avoid ten minutes of writing, costs your business, just for that hour, $625,000 annually. One hundred employees being that fearful of writing costs your firm over a million dollars annually.
The College Board estimates U.S. businesses spend $3.1 billion annually on writing training. Estimates of the actual costs of poor writing in U.S. businesses go well into the hundreds of billions—and, if you want to test it anecdotally, take a senior project manager from any industry to coffee one day and see how long it takes before they let out an exasperated: “the biggest issue I face with staff writing is that nobody thinks.”
Freshmen, every year, say the number one reason they are in school is to get a job. Businesses rank strong writing skills as one of their top priorities when hiring new talent. Yet, when I’ve raised the preparedness gap in universities, it tends to be met with the same kind of “someday” concern reserved for replacing the water fountains. If a business wants this solved, this is on the business.
Of the $3.1 billion being spent on corporate writing training now, much of it is largely wasted and doesn’t actually solve the need. Grammar matters, but businesses don’t need just another grammar class. Corporate writing training needs to address the gap between the education system and the business need. Specifically, the writing training needs to do the following things.
1. Establish why we write. Language is your brand.
Businesses rarely think about their relationship to writing. Fifty years ago one might have expected that a business didn’t have to, it was similar to asking about the relationship of the business to punctuality, or coffee. Now, though, our culture has changed and the global culture’s relationship to writing isn’t clear, downplayed too often, and therefore the business’ relationship to writing needs to be made clear to employees.
The need for good writing must be established and defined. Writing training should create the desire, within employees, to write well. Even though it is often treated as such, writing is not some add-on unimportant thing done in addition to your real business, it is your real business. Your clients are human beings. When your business creates an assessment, people have to trust you.
2. Know the purpose of the business.
In order for an employee to make critical thinking decisions in a business report, the employee must know the purpose of the business, the expectations of the client, and the role every aspect of the report plays in delivering information to the client.
3. Culture eats strategy, every time.
First said by Peter Drucker, made famous by Mark Fields. Always true.
Writing is the end result of your organization’s thinking. Therefore, writing helps if the corporation establishes early on that, even though there may be initial fear, the employee is not a corporate robot, forced to use yesterday’s language from yesterday’s employees to meet yesterday’s result. The employee was hired, specifically, for her thoughts, for her solution to a problem. Her language is her tool to accomplish this.