Wednesday, October 5

Writing Wrongs: Five Things Writers Need To Teach Themselves

According to the Harvard Business Review, nearly one-third of all professionals write poorly. And if these numbers are consistent with high school proficiency studies from two years ago, the majority aren't much better. Most get by with rudimentary skills.

After all, proficiency is a cut above basic. And right now, only about one in five high school graduates is a proficient writer. I suspect that number could be cut in half (and half again) if we set the bar closer to professional standards. There are only a few who could be considered good to great.

Most studies suggest that the problem begins before high school, with students not being required to write enough to become proficient. This year, I believe it. My son has been struggling with writing lately, which prompted me to ask: When did someone ever teach him to write in the first place? I can't recall.

I'm not worried yet, but only because writing is something I can teach him. Or, more accurately, I know that I can teach him how to teach himself how to write. Writing, like art, is a largely self-taught skill.

Writing is one of the most difficult and rewarding skills to teach. 

As an instructor, I've taught writing classes for eleven years. One of them is a simple half-day editing and proofreading refresher. It doesn't provide me with any sense of how much or how little students might know, before or even after the class.

My next session for Editing And Proofreading Your Work will be held this Nov. 4. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, likes to run the class two or three times a year. My other class is very different. It's a 10-week truncated course with eight assignments and one in-class assignment. It's held in the spring.

I have a general sense of the writing proficiency in the class after the very first assignment. And in general, the writing proficiency at the onset of the class is in decline. Even students who are working in the field (as writers) are struggling. But the struggle isn't always about writing. It's everything else.

The assignment is to write their own obituary, set some 20 or 30 years into the future. It's a great first exercise because it gives me an indication of their skill sets beyond writing skills, which are often even more critical than remembering grammar rules and style tips. It's also what most professors can't teach.

Five things professors cannot teach people to help them become better writers. 

1. Listening. Especially in communication (advertising, public relations, etc.), listening skills are critical because so much of the work is translating an organizational vision into motivational or educational or instructional content. If you don't listen to the client, it's impossible to deliver acceptable work.

The first assignment is a giveaway. Even though I will ask for an obituary as if a journalist wrote it, I will often receive a eulogy. It doesn't matter if I explain the difference in class or not. Likewise, it doesn't matter that the mandatories (like double spacing) are included in the course outline for some.

2. Understanding. While understanding is just an extension of listening (turning listening into active listening), it still counts. If you don't understand an assignment, it pays dividends to ask questions.

The first assignment is a giveaway because I do not pass out obituary examples. I ask them to look a few up on their own. Most clients do not provide samples. And the few who do are generally stuck in "I like" thinking that usually has nothing to do with their audience. I do, however, tell students that they can ask questions any time by email. Few ever do, and never on the first assignment.

3. Thinking. There is no way around it. Good writing requires good thinking. Not only do writers have to think up an organizational structure, but they also have to make it flow and remain interesting or compelling.

The first assignment is always revealing in how much time I will have to invest in organizational structure. It's not uncommon to see different ideas jumbled up in the same paragraph or any transitional bridges that will help their readers move from one point to the next.

I do teach how to think, but sometimes it's a challenge. More and more students want templates.

4. Passion. Probably the biggest decline in writing proficiency from my perspective is passion. I suspect the decline has been accelerated because of the breakneck speeds at which people attempt to write, but the real culprit is that some students struggle to connect any passion with their subject.

The first assignment is telling because if the students struggle with writing about their own dreams and aspirations, it's a fair indication that they will be passionless when they have to write a news release about the opening of a hotel. Unfortunately, you can't teach people passion beyond quick tip lists.

5. Motivation. In addition to a lack of passion, more students are struggling with self-motivation. Not only do they cheat themselves on the amount of time it takes to write a quality piece, but they are also too busy with life to complete every assignment. And even if they do complete every assignment, many resist rewrites so they have the opportunity to practice applying all those notes they receive on graded papers.

The first assignment provides a great benchmark for both areas. It's easy to tell which students are serious and which students need prodding — even though most took the course to become better writers. As hard as it is to imagine, they won't make time to help themselves.

Anyone can teach you grammar rules and style tips. The rest is up to you. 


The statistic on writing proficiency came from a bundled collection of articles that Harvard has put together. They do a fine job covering the basics, from pushing past writer's block to avoiding grammar gaffes. But mostly, they only scratch the surface on the most critical skill sets that I've included above.

If you really want to be a better writer, much like I will be teaching my son, then you have to master those five areas first. I'm not always convinced students are being taught these skill sets anymore.

To be a better writer, you really need to listen to what your client (or instructor, or audience) needs, understand the subject matter almost as good as the experts, organize the best approach to communicate those ideas, find the hook that provides enough passion to drive the story forward, and have the motivation to make every piece leave an impact.

If you don't have these down, then everything is trivia. If you do, then the rest is all style and polish.
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