Career Coach: Are writing skills necessary anymore?

May 22, 2011

We know the value of oral communication skills for today’s workers, but that other type of communication— writing — is just as important. With today’s emphasis on fast communication through technology, it seems more people ask why they need to take writing courses or learn writing skills when they can just text their views to employers, clients and colleagues.

Even children seem to gripe more these days about why they need to learn to write in complete sentences. So what is the value of good writing skills today?

I recently posed this question to a number of executives, consultants and business leaders from various disciplines. I thought that some of them, especially the younger ones, might actually agree that writing is overrated. On the contrary, all of them emphasized the criticality of good writing skills and said that writing is even more important than in previous years. Professionals spend more time each day writing and are inundated with written communications (e-mails, reports, memos and such), so it is imperative that employees be able to write succinctly and write well.

Business leaders also felt that writing skills among graduates seem to have declined over the years. Those who demonstrate good writing skills are often sought to participate in more interesting projects. As one chief executive put it, “Employees have to be able to write proposals for client work; they can’t just cut and paste from the Web.”

Another partner of a firm said he was so embarrassed by an associate’s writing, he couldn’t put it in front of a client. A sales manager agreed, “We have gotten so used to texting our messages to people or tweeting that we have forgotten how to spell or put two words together.”

Writing skills can differentiate job candidates from one another. Some graduates have told me that they think their writing skills landed them a job. In some cases, applicants have to provide a writing sample for a position. Many applicants have to complete job applications, which may include answers to various essay questions. Job candidates can also show off good writing skills by following up an interview with a thank-you note reiterating the value they would bring to the job. Employers often tell me they are surprised by how often applicants do not review what they submit. Incorrect grammar, spelling and language usage can make a very bad impression. Using an informal style — relying on abbreviations, not using punctuation and failing to capi­tal­ize — does not come across as professional. Many hiring managers figure that if a person demonstrates poor writing skills when highly motivated to apply for a job, those skills probably won’t be any better once on the job.

Here are some things to think about when you sit down to write:

•Think about your audience (business colleagues, friends, etc.) and the appropriate format (e-mail vs. report vs. letter).

•Use structure to make it reader-friendly. Section headings, paragraph subheadings, graphs, charts and bullet points can help.

•Proofread your work or get someone else to review it. Review accuracy, clarity, spelling, punctuation, grammar and conciseness.

•Be clear. Don’t rely on technical jargon or acronyms.

•Be concise. For many jobs it is important that you be able to write a one-page executive report as well as other short reports.

•Be professional, especially in e-mails. Anything that you send can be copied or forwarded to others. Employers often comment that a person’s written message reflects his/her personal image and degree of professionalism.

•Be comfortable with revisions. Don’t expect that your first draft will be the final product. Great writers often spend many hours revising and improving their work.

•Practice and get feedback on your writing.

•Take classes to improve. An Internet search quickly reveals numerous in-person and online options to improve technical writing and creative writing.

•Read your writing aloud to uncover mistakes.

•Cite references where appropriate. Make sure you do not plagiarize by taking others’ work without crediting it.

Remember, it is not the reader’s job to decipher what you are trying to say. It’s your job to make it clear. I have seen many individuals stop reading a paper, report or job application if they were having a lot of trouble understanding it. You want your work to stand out, but not in the wrong way.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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