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Writing skills: Mind the gap

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A growing number of the workforce simply can't write well enough to do their job properly, says Robert Ashton, chief executive of business-writing specialists Emphasis. But what can HR professionals do to address it?


From Fleet Street to Whitehall, Oxford University to the CBI, everyone is lamenting the sorry state of the nation's literacy skills. It doesn't matter who you ask, the consensus is that writing standards are on the decline.

At work, this means that business documents are frequently plagued by poor spelling, sloppily constructed sentences and flowery, jargon-ridden language. And even high-level reports are often too long, littered with contradictions and have no logical structure.

"Many recruitment processes include all kinds of technical capability assessments, together with psychometric and analytical testing. But unless writing is a major part of the job remit, very few employers have any kind of formal writing assessment."

Many recruitment processes include all kinds of technical capability assessments, together with psychometric and analytical testing. But unless writing is a major part of the job remit, very few employers have any kind of formal writing assessment: writing is either overlooked or taken for granted. This can be an oversight. All kinds of jobs rely on people being able to write effectively: accountancy, law, civil engineering, customer services and management consultancy are just a few examples.

A badly written report or letter to a client can do enormous damage – not to mention the cost of the hours people spend struggling to write them. And then there is the further time and money that managers are forced to waste rewriting documents that could have been written properly in the first place.

One solution is to introduce some kind of literacy test at entry level. Some companies do this for graduate and lower-level positions, but it is almost unknown at higher levels of an organisation. Yet many senior managers have unbelievably poor writing skills, which will arguably represent a much higher, long-term risk for the employer.

Assessing literacy competencies

A short screening and benchmarking exercise allows you to assess a range of literacy competencies. At a basic level, you are looking for good spelling, punctuation and grammar, together with the ability to write clear, correctly constructed sentences.

For positions that involve writing proposals or reports, it is also worth assessing how competently a candidate can plan and structure a business document. Can they convey their key messages successfully, build a logical argument, hold the reader's attention and make a document flow effectively?

Apart from eliminating poor writing skills, there is another benefit to introducing a formal assessment of literacy skills at the recruitment stage: it sends out a clear message that the organisation values good writing, making the candidate more mindful of how they write once they start work.

Of course, some otherwise strong candidates may simply need some help with their writing. Perhaps they have picked up bad habits over the years, or have become lazy about their grammar and sentence structure. Or they may have never been shown how to write effectively, particularly in a business context.

People tend to assume that good writers are born this way. This is a misleading myth. Writing is a skill, which means it can be learned. We have found that, irrespective of industry, profession or level on the career ladder, there are some business-writing shortcomings that are universal. These include:
 

  • Using jargon, business speak and flowery language because it 'sounds more professional'.
  • Lack of structure and logical flow.
  • Typos, poor punctuation and grammatical errors.
  • Key messages buried among less important information.
  • Documents that are far too long.
  • Big chunks of text with overlong paragraphs and few subheadings.
  • Vague and unquantified statements, such as: 'The company is very successful.'

If a potential candidate displays all or most of these flaws during their writing assessment, it might give you an excellent reason for opting for another candidate. Or, if you do decide to offer them the job because they score highly in other skill areas, at least you know from the outset that they will need some formal writing training.

Here are some top tips for improving writing at work:

Assess writing skills
Introduce a writing assessment as part of the recruitment process. Tailor the assessment to the level of the position you are trying to fill. For example, for a graduate position, ask candidates to write an introduction to a longer report. This will allow you to assess literacy competency (spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure), as well as gauge their ability to understand and summarise written information correctly.

"People tend to assume that good writers are born this way. This is a misleading myth. Writing is a skill, which means it can be learned."

For a more senior position, it might be more appropriate to ask candidates to write a management report or a sales proposal in response to a specific brief. It's also worth pointing out here that senior managers often think they can write and may express surprise at having their writing skills tested at interview. Don't let this put you off. Simply explain that the test demonstrates the value your organisation and clients or customers place on good writing skills.

Also, look at the covering letter again. Yes it might list some of the key technical skills you are looking for, but is it well written with properly constructed sentences and a convincing argument about why they can do the job?

Identify specific weaknesses
Poor writing will not be limited to new recruits. What are the current writing weaknesses within your organisation? Are your customer services letters verbose and impersonal? Are management reports jargon-ridden and poorly structured? Or do you hear regular complaints about poor grammar and punctuation? It's worth identifying the specific problems that you feel are most relevant. That way, training can be tailored to actual needs and weaknesses, rather than just to a vague awareness of 'poor literacy'.

Ernst & Young, for example, recognised that its research-analysis team was producing reports that were overwritten, vague, filled with jargon and offered no definitive viewpoint or guidance. So we helped the team to adopt a clearer, more assertive and concise style of writing and to express a strong strategic point of view.

RAC realised their letters to customers were often wordy and overformal, often with poor punctuation, letting down their otherwise customer-friendly approach. Similarly, we were able to develop a training programme that tackled these particular issues head on.

Style guide
Does your organisation have one? If so, the chances are it is on the shelf in the communications department gathering dust. Or it's buried somewhere on the intranet, its whereabouts only known to a handful of people (probably those who already know its contents and how to write). Why not include it in the welcome pack for new recruits or build it into the induction programme?

Writing champions or mentors
We have worked with The Environment Agency to train a number of 'writing champions' who have then passed on their new skills and knowledge to their colleagues. This has helped to improve writing standards throughout the organisation. Creating writing champions or mentors can work particularly well in larger organisations where it can be more challenging to address individual problems and weaknesses.

Whatever you do, don't assume that people know how to write – even if they do have significant business experience or a first-class degree in English (writing a management report is very different from deconstructing Shakespeare). Instead, make sure you assess their skills and then you can decide whether or how to bridge any gaps.

Emphasis' clients include The Environment Agency, Ernst & Young, Royal Mail, RAC and GlaxoSmithKline. For more information, please visit: www.writing-skills.com

One Response

  1. Masking stupidity…
    There’s another excuse for poor writing skills, to mask stupidity.

    I’ve lost count of the number of over-promoted individuals who seem to fill their writing with “management speak” because it allowed them to hide their own shortcomings.

    In a previous life I used to write bid submissions for the LSC, and was often told to put management speak into these to pad them out and to show the “quality” of our organisation.

    I’ve been writing, bids, position statements and analysis for years. I am a firm believer in clear, concise, statements that prompt for a decision.

    Yet the LSC itself rewards lousy writing – and it really does. So while I am fully in support of the content of this article, it would be nice for the educators to get themselves up to speed with what’s needed in today’s world.

    And the worst examples of communication almost always seem to come from the Public sector (though the private sector can be pretty shoddy too). Anyone for a speech by John Prescott?

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