We need to teach people to be better writers

I’m venting from having to re-write something right now, but this has really been bothering me lately. I’ve been struggling with this… and maybe my historical understanding of the state of our collective ability (as a nation of adults) to write is muddled. Is it me or are there just a lot of people who need help writing text that explains things?

I’ve been working with subject matter experts for the past 7 years to develop instructional design. I’ve been fortunate to work with a few who have a really good command over their writing and who could literally write circles around me, but lately I’ve been noticing not just among subject matter experts but among professionals in general there is a growing dearth of people who can simply write good expository.

I’m not a perfect writer, and I know that my writing is kind of like torn paper, rough around the edges, but I consider myself fortunate enough to have teachers who tried to hammer in me the importance of organizing and linking ideas and structuring writing so that someone could at least understand what I was trying to get across. I think that I wasn’t a very apt pupil, and to some extent I still struggle with this… but I have worked in the corporate environment for over six years and I have to say I’ve seen a great number of high level managers who have really abysmal writing skills. In one case, the writing was so bad everytime that manager sent out an e-mail, her employees would often huddle together in the aisle trying to decipher the cryptic and terse text to gather the gist of what she was communicating. This individual could not send out a department-wide e-mail without having her admin look over it. That’s just not right. Should someone who can’t even demonstrate an eighth grade skill in writing make that much money?

I cannot simply accept that people cannot write because it’s a God given gift and some people are blessed with it while others are not. Is it me or is this lack of writing skills growing in the adult population? Though to be honest, that manager I mentioned is from a generation or two before my own… so I guess her teachers might have missed the ball when it came to building her skills as a writer. Perhaps increased involvement in blogging will help, but I suspect that unless we take the teaching of writing far more seriously in our schools, then things won’t improve.

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5 Responses to “We need to teach people to be better writers”


  1. 1 Christy Tucker September 28, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    In the “old days,” that manager who couldn’t write would have dictated to a secretary who cleaned up what he said. The secretary would have covered for him; she would have been the one with good writing skills.

    I’m going to guess that this manager you mentioned was a boomer. When the boomers hit the schools, there was a huge teacher shortage. Sometimes the people they hired to alleviate that shortage were simply warm bodies and babysitters, especially at the elementary level. A lot of people didn’t get a good foundation, but it was OK at the time because it was expected that everyone could find a job in a factory after they got out of high school.

    Our need for writing writing skills are higher now. In the days of factory jobs, most people really didn’t need to write much to communicate. They could pick up the phone or walk over to someone to ask a question. Now it’s more likely that they communicate through email or IM. Everyone needs to know how to write to do email.

    While the need is increasing, I think the amount of time people spend reading may be decreasing. I’m not positive about that, because it may be that people are still reading as much, but it’s online instead of books, but I do think it’s decreased. You need to read to write.

  2. 2 Judy O'Connell October 1, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Gee, don’t pick on the boomers Christy! 🙂 Anyway, I know people in leadership positions from boomers down, who also can’t write – but as you say,secretaries and personal assistants have been sorting this out for a long time. However, in this era of openness, blogging, etc what I find particularly distasteful is when those in senior positions have someone else do the writing for them – even come up with the ideas – and then have it is published as their own writing and thoughts. But this is politics, right? YES, we do need to teach people to write, and better still, teach them to write with integrity.

  3. 3 nkilkenny October 1, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Here, here! Integrity all the way. I think that young people today with all their access to the web, can be tempted to copy, cut and paste. Though there are things like doc cop that help monitor this. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to teach writing to young people, but I’d like to at least offer my abilities to help proofread or give feedback on mechanics, or heck just even be someone to write to. Maybe I should start a website, network or something like that.

  4. 4 Christy Tucker October 2, 2007 at 2:10 am

    I don’t think it’s just young people who are tempted to copy and paste from the web–I’ve caught too many people with terminal degrees with “uncited content” to think it’s an issue of age. Look at Glenn Poshard, the soon-to-be-ex-president of Southern Illinois University. He’s claimed no one told him he had to use quotation marks when he quoted another source. Right. (Although maybe it’s possible I don’t like Poshard because he’s related to my ex-husband…nah, it’s just the plagiarizing.)

    I think if we expect students to write well and with integrity, they need to have role models to follow. Fortunately, I do think that blogs and other Web 2.0 tools can help both give students experience writing and introduce them to role models to read.

  5. 5 naturalelegance October 15, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    What you mean? We don’t need no stinking writing skills!!!!!

    But I digress. I hope that my children will learn to write adequately. I work with my eldest on his writing, asking him to put in more detail or even add punctuation at the end of a sentence. Clarity, at any age, is key.

    In this day and age, if a person cannot communicate with the written word, he or she may as well be living in a vacuum. Unfortunately, those in positions of power make life that much more difficult for us if they cannot write a simple sentence.

    So, I sympathize with you, Natalie. I really do.


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