I recently wrote about “Where are the workers?” One of the serious issues in finding new hires is the general inability of today’s graduates to write. I need people who can put coherent thoughts on paper that deliver a clear, concise and unambiguous message.
We used to know how to write. My Great Grandfather and his brothers grew up on a poor farm in Western Pennsylvania and went to a one-room schoolhouse for eight grades. They certainly were not, even for that era, well educated. They worked hard on the farm. Probably the only book in the house was the old family Bible, and the nearest public library would have been at least a two-hour walk away. Unless there was an important errand to the town, no farm worker could take half a day off just to go the library. Yet when they went away to war, the US Civil War, they wrote letters home. Dozens of letters have survived, and while they are hard to read they are well written. They are hard to read because they were written with a new-fangled device called the pencil on scraps of paper sitting on a rock around a campfire. The grammar is not necessarily always good, and spelling was not important. There were three different spellings of their last name in the letters. Yet each individual letter told a story about how they felt, what they did, asked about family, and responded to letters from home.
What happened? Why can’t most people write? There is a lot of conversation claiming that it is all the fault of Twitter or email or some other relatively new technology. These technologies make it easy to send something to others quickly, and seem to encourage thoughtless “communication.” While it is true that these tools enable someone to put out a lot of junk, they also enable someone to put out good writings. We have all seen tweets that were more like poetry, expressing in a very small space an interesting viewpoint that makes you think or laugh or cry.
The general inability of educated people to write well predates the Internet by decades. Since at least the 1950s, the US education system has worked very hard to not teach students how to write. This applies at every level.
I went to what was recognized as a very good public school district. This district actually had a superintendent with a PhD in Education, something very unusual in that day. We had top-notch teachers in science and math, the kind that inspired students. We had physics and chemistry labs the equal of many college undergraduate labs. The year I graduated we sent 47% of the students on to four-year colleges and universities, many with advanced placement credit in math, physics, chemistry, biology, English, and a couple of foreign languages.
And we did a lot of writing. From the seventh grade on it seemed that every English class and most history or “social science” classes had a weekly in-class essay to write, and at least two term papers a year. These in-class essays were usually done in a “blue book” – so called because it was, well, blue. The 8.5 by 7 inch book had a few sheets of wide-ruled paper, usually fewer than five. In class, the teacher announced the topic and you had the period to write. You were permitted to use the last page to do a quick outline, but otherwise you started on the upper left of the first page and wrote until done. You got the paper back on Monday with two grades: Mechanics and Content. “Mechanics” included penmanship, spelling and grammar, with specific penalty points for each such infraction. Misspelling something like “Mediterranean” five times meant nothing better than a C for that Mechanics grade. (So I’ve heard – I would, of course, never misspell the same word the same way five times in a three-page paper.) It had to be written in cursive, not printed. Bic pens did not have built in spell-checkers, or a delete key.
“Content” meant including the three to six facts the teacher expected to be in the paper. Of course it was up to you to guess which specific facts those were.
Notice that there was no grade for the quality of the writing. You could, and this I did do on more than one occasion, simply use a series of well-structured sentences to state the facts you thought the teacher wanted with little or no organization and get a good grade.
There often was a length requirement: write ten pages or write 1,000 words about <insert subject here>. These length requirements were minimums, not maximums. You would get to the end of what you wanted to say, whether in a weekly essay or term paper, and realize that you needed another page or 200 words. So, you just added another page or 200 words. You can image how much value that additional effort added to the paper.
There is an old story, attributed to many folk including Mark Twain. He wrote a lot of letters to friends. At the end of one especially long letter, he added, “I apologize for the length of this letter. I did not have time to make it shorter.” It is hard to say what needs to be said concisely. Far too often I get emails and papers that clearly did not have that extra effort applied.
I learned more grammar in two years of Latin than in all of my English classes. Now that most schools do not offer Latin, I wonder how they are actually teaching grammar these days.
Because of my high school English grades and my AP score, I did not have to take the freshman writing class at the University. Imagine my surprise when I got out in the real world and found out that I could not write well. To whatever extent I can write today, it is because of my own efforts with lots of support from mentors and other who knew how to write.
There are exceptions. A good friend of mine went to public school in the same area as I did and just a few years later. She had a high school English teacher who really worked on writing. She was the vicious editor who insisted that the result delivered a clear, concise and unambiguous message. These teachers were, and probably still are, out there. But do not expect that your child will ever see one of them.
I wrote that it takes about 10,000 hours to really become good with any skill. But that 10,000 hours is not just beating a drum, but listening to lots of expert drummers and having others tell you how well you are beating that drum and giving you guidance. Otherwise you have just spent 10,000 hours learning how to do something badly.
To learn to write you need to do three things:
- Read. Read lots. Read critically. Does this product’s documentation really explain the product? Does this sales brochure make me interested? Does this short story make me think? What is different between the ones that I like and the ones that leave me cold?
- Write. Write lots. Fiction, non-fiction. View every writing assignment as an opportunity to learn. When possible, write more than one version from a different perspective or with a different audience in mind. Take something you wrote last year and write it again. Make it 40% shorter without reducing the impact, which will probably increase the impact.
- Seek out criticism. Ask people to read what you wrote and be brutally honest. If you can find a professional editor or writer, make friends with them because they can give you the best advice. Remember that if you ask three people you will get three different responses, but each will have some value. You don’t have to accept them all or even any of them, but each will tell you something. Don’t make excuses, don’t try to explain, just sit there and take it. And thank them.
Learning to write is like any other skill. You need to observe the experts and study what they do, practice practice practice, but let much of that practice be under supervision of someone who can help you get better.
The last word:
Unfortunately you don’t always have access to a good (i.e., vicious) editor. You do, however, always have access to a pretty good check mechanism. Simply read your writing out loud. It’s OK if you are the only audience; in fact I find that preferable. If you read something out loud, you can get a better sense of how it will come across to your audience. Listen to the cadence. Did you create appropriate spaces to breathe; and for your audience to process? Does the language sound stilted? Is it hard to figure out the syntax – not from a technical grammatical perspective but from the “what I meant” view? Usually the simple things like noun-verb matching, consistent tense, and confusing pronouns just jump out at you. Did it start well, and did it come to a graceful end, leaving your message clear?
You need a non-distracting environment, both to prevent extraneous noise from distracting you, and to keep those around you from wondering why this crazy dude is talking to himself. Eventually you will learn to do it silently, but since it really has to be “vocalized” at speaking speed, I find my lips move. So, I still look like a crazy dude.
Personally, I almost always read out loud everything I write before sending it. This applies to tweets, emails, marketing materials, technical documents, and just fun stuff like this blog. When I don’t, I often wish I had.
Keep your sense of humor.
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