Originally published: LinkedIn | By Jeffrey J. Selingo | Aug 11, 2017
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 was to find good writers these days. The two men talked about their college experiences, majors, and how they learned to write.
“I was a math major,” the interviewer said his companion, “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 writing skills are one of the biggest gaps in workplace readiness.
The biggest differentiator in business now is good writing.
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 writing and communications are the most requested job requirement across nearly every industry, even fields such as information technology and engineering.
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. In the book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the authors described a study that tracked more than 2,000 students enrolled at four-year colleges. Among those who graduated on time, exactly half said they took five or fewer courses that required at least 20 pages of writing.
“If students are not being asked to read and write on a regular basis in their course work,” the authors wrote, “it is hard to imagine how they will improve their capacity to master performance tasks that involve critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.”
Training for any activity in life requires practice that usually exceeds the tasks we will need to handle later on.
Extensive writing is rarely assigned in many college courses because it’s a labor-intensive activity and raises the workload for students and professors. Students don’t understand why they need to write five-page papers, let alone 20 pages, given many of them won’t write much more than PowerPoint slides, e-mails, or one-page memos once in the workplace.
But training for any activity in life requires practice that usually exceeds the tasks we will need to handle later on. Not every college graduate needs to be a novelist, but if college students become competent writers who draft clear prose, then they’ll also be able to compose anything on the job, 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 them:
- Writing takes time, in preparation and in actually writing. Students 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.”
- Drafting is a critical part of the writing process. 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. 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.
- Don’t forget to edit yourself. Barbara Adams, an associate professor of writing at Ithaca College, told me that after every draft, students should print out what they’ve written, wait a while—maybe an hour or a day—to view it with fresh eyes and edit it on the printed page. “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.”
- Writing is not a solitary experience. 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.
- Writing is meant to be shared with more than a teacher or professor. Sharing the final product with an audience outside of 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?” Technology has allowed students to distribute their writing more widely through blogs and wikis, and even podcasts, Nicholas added. “Because podcasting is audio only, students are forced to convey their message clearly,” he said.
- Read good writing. Perhaps the best way to improve writing is to read good writing, and not just 140-character 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.
What are some of your tips for improving writing of students coming out of high school or college? How did you learn how to write?
Jeffrey Selingo is author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow. You can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at jeffselingo.com.
He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.
This post is adapted from the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog.