Why Our Writing Skills Need an Upgrade

Posted on October 19, 2012. Filed under: social media, Work Issues | Tags: , , |

by Sheree Van Vreede (@rezlady)

It’s funny. I hear a lot of people talking about the importance of strong verbal communication skills these days, but I rarely hear much about written communication skills. I find that odd considering how much written communication the average person now does, from remote work, to documentation, to social media.

Not surprisingly, this same issue translates into our education system. When most people talk about curriculum reform, they talk about the need for more math, science, and technology in the classroom (and for good reason). Usually, the last thing they are thinking about is grammar and the importance of written communication. In fact, by and large, many efforts have been made to downgrade these skills as a side issue to something “larger” (big picture thinking). Sure, our kids still practice writing in their daybooks and journals, producing responses to endless essay questions, and so on. But often they are graded more on their critical thought process than they are on their actual writing ability.

In the age of social media, this is a concern.

I’ve been a remote worker since 1999, and my foundation is in freelance editing for scientific/technical/academic publishing houses. Because I am remote and because I work with documentation written by mostly technical folks, I can tell you that there are three main skill sets that are desparately missing when it comes to written communication these days:

  • Engaging personality.

Sometimes I think there is nothing more self-absorbing than e-mail. People rush them off with barely a consideration for how they might be perceived by the person at the other end of the communication. You are expected to understand them. Period.

My business partner and I have an inside joke. Every time we get some terse e-mail, when we follow it up with a phone call, our “lion” quickly turns into a “lamb.” Every time. Why? Because verbal communication tends to make us more engaging and less confrontational. We have a person right there we have to interact with, and unless we are really, really mad, we tend to want to make a connection with that person.

Writing, which should actually heighten this effect, more often than not misses that mark for most people. The reason? Because they are thinking more about themselves than they are about their audience. They forget about the other person who will be reading their diatribe.

Let’s face it. Selfish people are just not that engaging.

  • Grammar skills.

Now, I know that learning grammar was probably one of the least favorite subjects by most people in school, but do you know that today very few kids are even learning it? Sure, they get the basics (parts of a sentence), but they learn very little about the true meaning behind most words and how to craft more meaningful texts. Now, I understand not everyone wants to be Shakespeare, but I didn’t want to be Einstein either, and even I still had to learn basic physics. So whether it is fun or not, it is still your language. It would be nice to know more about it!

Let me be clear here. My point is not that people sometimes have typos (as far as I know, none of us is perfect). It’s not even that someone might have difficulty spelling (although it would be nice if they at least tried to use spellchecker from time to time). It’s the general lack of concern for how they present themselves and the embodiment of their work. You don’t have to be stuffy because you choose your words carefully and consider how they are arranged and what they mean. Some of the best wordsmiths are the most entertaining precisely because they have such a strong command of language.

  • Cohesiveness.

We seem to think that by teaching math and science, we are teaching logic, but that is not the whole picture. Crafting a well-written, cohesive document requires some of the strongest logic skills there are (after all, you are building something out of nothing). And I can tell, whether it is my engineers at Boeing or my PhDs at Harvard, the ability to write something that is logically cohesive is lacking. The reason is because the act of writing has become such a hurried, secondary, unimportant event in our lives; we no longer sit and really think through what it is we want to say and how we want to structure it (in fact, I have had many an author act as though it is beneath them…all this fuss over writing).

But it is not enough just to “know” something; you must be able to connect with your audience.

You know, there once was a time when people actually rated each other on their letter writing abilities, how well they engaged the reader, how proper the grammar, and how cohesive the letter. They didn’t want a list of bullet points, vomiting out what the other person knew. They wanted something that was on point and interesting to read. It meant the person was “educated!”

This all might sound “stuffy” to a “hear-and-now” (as well as a “here-and-now”) generation, but if the popularity of social media is any indication, now more than ever, people want to be heard. They have something to say.

Yet, unless you can communicate it well in writing, I promise you, no one will be listening.


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14 Responses to “Why Our Writing Skills Need an Upgrade”

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I was taken by surprise at both the popularity of social media and the speed at which it has grown. People seem to prefer texting to talking even though the instrument primarily designed for talking is in their hands when they begin texting. It takes inordinate writing skill to make your point in a limited number of characters.

The problem I noticed, when growing up, was that so many English teachers, particularly at the high school level, spend far more time teaching Literature than English. I have long maintained that, if they split English and Literature into the two separate subjects they really are, students would learn English faster and better than they do now. In fact, they might be able to do away with English all together in high school.
The truly strange thing that happened to me is, with as much trouble as I had learning English, I ended up being a better writer than most of the people I know.

Thanks for your comments, Tom. Personally, I would like to see more emphasis on grammar/writing finesse up through middle school and then bring in literature for serious study in high school/college after the foundation for language skills and writing has been laid. I believe both studies have merit; but like you, I agree that they are very difficult to teach together because the emphasis is different. In my own education as an English major who then became a copy editor, I had to do a lot of backtracking to fill in gaps in my understanding of grammar/word usage. Just being a good reader is certainly not enough. Thanks again! ~Sheree

I agree, Jack. I’m afraid, however, that there seems to be very little concern about having that “inordinate writing skill.” What I like to call the “psychology” behind writing anything is lacking, and in my experience, it has a lot to do with lack of concern for audience. We just want to say something and aren’t too concerned about how the reader perceives it. It’s like being in a room with a lot of people shouting jibberish. For social media, in particular, to work well, companies are going to need to place more value on those who can communicate effectively in writing. And there again, we could have another skills gap in employment.

I have to agree, the breaking out of English (or even “American”) from Literature can only help. Not only are people not learning the basics of using the language, they – like me, when I was in high school mumblety years ago – develop an aversion to the classics of literature. Not only don’t they have the language skills to appreciate the old style of writing, but they don’t have the emotional maturity that many of them require, or breadth of experience. I still sheer away from Dickens, Austen, Bronte, etc.

I am in two boards belonging to bestselling authors, both of which have writing groups attached. I head one, mostly moribund at this time, & am not a member of the other board’s group, but I do interact with many members of that group in other areas of the board, and I’m just flabbergasted at the number of wannabe writers who don’t know where to use apostrophes, there from they’re from their, etc. They don’t capitalize “I”, or first letters of sentences, lack commas or put them not just behind the wrong words, but they do this: “Do I like ,need a comma here?” They don’t know how to break a paragraph for change of subject nor understand that two speakers need two paragraphs.

It’s been blamed on teachers having to deal with “no child left behind” or “no flunking grades”. It’s been blamed on ADD & ADHD. Any of those will contribute, yes. But it does tend to boil down to the responsibilities of both the child and the parent to realize “this isn’t working, I/my child needs more education than this. How do we get it?” and then follow through. Don’t expect over worked and under paid teachers to do it all for you and your children. Get involved in education yourself, whether it’s as part of a PTA or just sitting down with your child and supplementing their schoolwork with exercises in how to read and write correctly.

It doesn’t have to be a huge time sink with a ruler to whack the kid’s knuckles when their attention strays. Games, links to spots like http://chzschooloffail.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/homework-class-test-english-listen-up-internet.jpg or http://io9.com/5881386/how-not-to-be-a-clever-writer or even http://dynamo.dictionary.com/libraryhttp://dynamo.dictionary.com/library and talking about them, playing “let’s see if your favorite fiction author has done this” games in comparing things that they’re reading for fun against the error lists, or vocabulary games. You might learn something yourself, for crying out loud.

Also, I’m wondering; was “a hear-and-now generation” a deliberate play on words?

Yes, good catch on my silly attempt to play with the words! But it did prompt me to think that maybe it wasn’t all that obvious. So I made a slight adjustment. 🙂 I agree with you regarding parents being more involved in their child’s education. I have learned with my own daughter that we still need to supplement her schoolwork with our own hands-on teaching. My husband takes math; I take writing. Right now she is still a willing audience, so it is better to do it sooner than later. Thanks for your comments! ~Sheree

Glad it was something you find appropriate. I honestly think that getting into the written word with the kids (childless myself) can only benefit both child & parent. It helps the schools too, obviously, since it takes a little of the burden off the teachers & the strained budgets.

Instead of shoving the kid at more & more “school activities” that are designed to get them into the fast lane, have some one on one with him, her, or them. Remember the song “Cat’s in the Cradle”? It’s not enough to supposedly have a good education, or “quality time” with the kids, you need quantity too. Better quality is clearly important, yes, but you won’t bond with your children if you only see them like a combination of hotelier and jailer!

People wonder why we get alienated people who shoot up movie theaters and schools or shopping malls. Well… guess what? If your own flesh & blood family isn’t real to you, a building full of mostly strangers, intermingled with people who have bullied or just ignored you sure isn’t going to make you think twice about shooting bleeding targets that talk.

It shows up in the business morals & behaviors too; have you looked at the way some companies hire cheap, burn employees out quickly, then hire some other “college educated” (and a lot of good it’s doing them!) kid for the same job, three, four, five times a year, instead of bonding with the employees & keeping them long enough to pay some kind of pension? And the kids expect it; they plan their ‘careers’ around company hopping.

Then everyone wonders why the customer service and record keeping are mixed up and impersonal, and moan and whine about it. I refer to things like http://blogs.computerworlduk.com/simon-says/2012/10/rights-you-have-no-right-to-your-ebooks/index.htm Betcha a nickel that “Michael Murphy” is either a house pen name, like “Carol Keene” of the Nancy Drew Mysteries, or he burned out & left the company because he couldn’t get anyone to give him authority to even explain to people with this kind of issue.

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Reblogged this on Sheree Van Vreede Publications and commented:
I wrote this blog last year as part of my work with ITtechExec. Enjoy!

[…] Writing Skills (check out an earlier post on this subject: “Why Our Writing Skills Need an Upgrade“) […]

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