Writ­ing skills are ris­ing on the list of job re­quire­ments — and falling in can­di­dates

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - JEF­FREY K. SELINGO jeff.selingo@wash­post.com

A few months ago, I was hav­ing break­fast in down­town Wash­ing­ton. I couldn’t help but over­hear a ca­sual job in­ter­view hap­pen­ing at the ta­ble next to me. The in­ter­viewer owned a gov­ern­ment con­tract­ing busi­ness and was look­ing to hire a per­son to help write pro­pos­als to fed­eral agen­cies.

Near the end of the con­ver­sa­tion, the in­ter­viewer com­plained about how dif­fi­cult it is to find good writ­ers th­ese days. The two men talked about their col­lege ex­pe­ri­ences and how they learned to write.

“I was a math ma­jor,” the in­ter­viewer said, “but the big­gest dif­fer­en­tia­tor in busi­ness now is good writ­ing.”

He’s not alone in his opin­ion. Ac­cord­ing to na­tional sur­veys, em­ploy­ers want to hire col­lege grad­u­ates who can write co­her­ently, think cre­atively and an­a­lyze quan­ti­ta­tive data. But the Con­fer­ence Board has found in its sur­veys of cor­po­rate hir­ing lead­ers that skill­ful writ­ing is one of the big­gest short­falls in work­place readi­ness.

That’s why so many em­ploy­ers now ex­plic­itly ask for writ­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills in their job ad­ver­tise­ments. An anal­y­sis by Burn­ing Glass Tech­nolo­gies, which stud­ies job trends in real time by min­ing data from em­ploy­ment ads, found that ex­pe­ri­ence in writ­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions are the most re­quested job re­quire­ments across nearly ev­ery in­dus­try, even in fields such as in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and engi­neer­ing.

“My stu­dents can’t write a clear sen­tence to save their lives, and I’ve had it,” Joseph R. Teller, an English pro­fes­sor at Col­lege of the Se­quoias, wrote in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in the fall. “In 10 years of teach­ing writ­ing, I have ex­per­i­mented with dif­fer­ent as­sign­ments, ac­tiv­i­ties, read­ings, ap­proaches to com­ment­ing on stu­dent work — you name it — all to help stu­dents write co­her­ent prose that some­one would ac­tu­ally want to read. And as any­one who keeps up with trends in higher ed­u­ca­tion knows, such ef­forts largely fail.”

Good writ­ing takes prac­tice, and it seems that many col­lege stu­dents, es­pe­cially out­side of writ­ing-in­ten­sive lib­eral arts ma­jors, are just not be­ing asked to write of­ten enough.

Ex­ten­sive writ­ing is rarely as­signed in many col­lege cour­ses be­cause it’s la­bor-in­ten­sive, rais­ing the work­load for stu­dents and pro­fes­sors. Stu­dents don’t un­der­stand why they need to write five-page pa­pers, let alone 20-page ones.

But train­ing for any ac­tiv­ity in life re­quires a level of prac­tice that usu­ally ex­ceeds the tasks we will need to han­dle later on. Not ev­ery col­lege grad­u­ate needs to be a nov­el­ist, but if stu­dents be­come com­pe­tent writ­ers who draft clear prose, then they’ll also be able to com­pose any­thing from Pow­erPoint slides to re­ports.

Re­cently, I asked a few of the best writ­ers I know, in­clud­ing high school teach­ers and col­lege pro­fes­sors who taught me how to write, what can be done to im­prove the com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills of col­lege grad­u­ates. They of­fered plenty of good ad­vice for how stu­dents can de­velop their writ­ing and ap­proaches teach­ers and pro­fes­sors can use in the class­room. Among my fa­vorites:

Writ­ing takes time, in prepa­ra­tion and in ac­tual writ­ing.

The jour­nal­ist Don Fry di­vides writ­ers into two types: plan­ners and plungers. Plungers are those who start writ­ing be­fore they know what to write. Plan­ners start writ­ing only when they know what to write. Fry main­tains that the world used to be ruled by plan­ners, but teach­ers to­day say too many stu­dents are plungers and short­change the re­search and or­ga­niz­ing nec­es­sary to be good writ­ers.

“Too of­ten, stu­dents let their brain spill onto a page, and then they sub­mit their mas­ter­piece,” said Les­lie Ni­cholas, my high school jour­nal­ism teacher and a for­mer Teacher of the Year in Penn­syl­va­nia. “They need to learn that the writ­ing process is not lin­ear” and in­cludes prewrit­ing, draft­ing, re­vis­ing, edit­ing and shar­ing, with com­po­nents of that process re­peated of­ten.

While there is noth­ing wrong with plungers — I for one de­spise out­lines — too much writ­ing in­struc­tion in schools en­cour­ages writ­ing on the fly by re­quir­ing stu­dents to com­pose es­says dur­ing class time or to sub­mit only fi­nal pa­pers rather than drafts along the way.

Edit­ing is part of the writ­ing process.

One prob­lem with a sin­gle dead­line for writ­ing projects is that it doesn’t in­tro­duce stu­dents to the idea that self-edit­ing is a crit­i­cal part of good writ­ing. Art Mark­man, a promi­nent au­thor and psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin, said he shares the “aw­ful drafts” of his own pa­pers with stu­dents to show them that good writ­ing doesn’t just hap­pen, but rather is the re­sult of mul­ti­ple it­er­a­tions.

As an un­der­grad­u­ate, I worked as a coach in my col­lege’s writ­ing cen­ter. The cen­ter was run by Bar­bara Adams, now an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of writ­ing at Ithaca Col­lege. She told me that af­ter each draft, stu­dents should print out what they’ve writ­ten, wait a while — maybe an hour or a day — to view it with fresh eyes.

“Read ev­ery­thing you write aloud to see how it sounds,” she said. “Then cut out the fat, re­dun­dan­cies, rep­e­ti­tions. Let it flow. Don’t worry about sound­ing el­e­gant or smart or lit­er­ary. Just be clear, di­rect, pur­pose­ful.” But pay at­ten­tion to punc­tu­a­tion, she added. “Lack of or in­cor­rect punc­tu­a­tion is a far greater is­sue than weak gram­mar.”

Writ­ing is not soli­tary.

The best writ­ers learn from oth­ers. With­out shar­ing mul­ti­ple drafts of their writ­ing with any­one else, stu­dents never get the chance to ap­ply feed­back to im­prove their work. But feed­back also needs to hap­pen quickly. Too of­ten, stu­dents hand in a pa­per only to get it back weeks later, by which time they don’t care or have moved on to some­thing else.

Feed­back shouldn’t just come from teach­ers, but also from peers. Many of the best writ­ing teach­ers use the “work­shop method” in their classes, where stu­dents ex­change drafts to cri­tique. Adams said when “a stu­dent sim­ply knocks it out of the park in a fin­ished pa­per, I may ask them to read it aloud, then have the rest of class dis­cuss why it works, or what as­pects don’t.”

Shar­ing the fi­nal prod­uct with an au­di­ence out­side a class­room is im­por­tant in en­gag­ing stu­dents in the writ­ing process, Ni­cholas said. “It is frus­trat­ing for stu­dents to put a great deal of ef­fort into a writ­ing as­sign­ment and then share it with just one reader, the teacher,” he said. “How many ac­tors would per­form for an au­di­ence of one?”

Now back to my break­fast neigh­bors. As they de­parted, the one in­ter­view­ing for the job asked his com­pan­ion if he wanted a free copy of the news­pa­per that was stacked at the en­trance. “I don’t have time to read,” the in­ter­viewer replied.

Per­haps the best way to im­prove writ­ing is to read good writ­ing, and not just 140char­ac­ter tweets or Face­book shares. We de­velop an ear for lan­guage, sen­tence struc­ture and pac­ing by read­ing oth­ers and try­ing out some­thing we learn from them.

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