Writing Beyond Sac State: Alumni Writing in the Workplace

 

By Carolyn Pickrel, WAC Fellow

 

Writing Across the Curriculum Program is currently involved in a research project aimed at uncovering information about the kind of writing alumni are doing at their places of employment.  During fall semester 2004, the WAC project pilot surveyed several alumni to find out what types of on-the-job writing they were doing.  The pilot project also involved asking alumni to consider how their undergraduate degree prepared them for workplace writing.  We felt that this information would be valuable for helping CSUS instructors draw connections between their curriculum and the types of writing their students will be faced with in their future careers.

Alumni Response to the Pilot Project

Initially we surveyed alumni who still maintained contact with CSUS instructors.  At the WAC conference in February 2005, we presented the findings from these surveys which included thirteen alumni from various majors including those with positions in law enforcement, business, engineering, and TV news.  These initial findings confirmed some of the assumptions we had about the importance of writing in students’ future careers, regardless of the career they chose. 

One engineer summarized the importance of writing in his job:  “The ability to adequately convey ideas, procedures, findings, technical specifications and design details through writing is extremely important in the engineering work place and definitively sways management when considering an individual for promotion.” 

Similarly, a Sacramento county sheriff conveys the importance of writing in his field:  “the ability of an officer to convey information in a grammatically correct and understandable format is imperative to maintaining credibility and professionalism among a varied audience.”

Types of Writing

One of the surprising findings was the diverse range of writing that alumni were handling in their careers.  Most of those who responded were typically writing memos, letters, or email but their responses included seventeen different types of written documents:  staffing rosters, operational plans, meeting agendas/minutes, proposals, executive summaries, legal declarations, reports, legislation, and employee performance evaluations, to name a few.  By contrasting their responses with the written materials that we ask students to complete or develop in our own courses, we could see the importance of the university focus on writing intensive courses within the student’s major.

Variety of Audiences

Another interesting aspect of this survey was the variety of audiences the alumni were writing to.  The audiences these alumni write for include eighteen different entities:  attorneys, judges, juries, co-workers, upper management, government agencies, vendors, contractors, architects, supervisors, private developers, public agencies.  Often in college courses, the only audience students practice writing for is the instructor.

Revision and Other Findings

Other findings included an emphasis on concise well-written prose that must be revised until it properly communicates the right message to the audience.  Most alumni felt that teaching writing in school should be general and give students the basics that would serve as a foundation in any career.  They felt that providing samples of the writing done in a specific career or encouraging students to intern in a potential career were good ways to familiarize themselves with the types of writing done in that particular job. 

One alumna captured the revision process that is required in the workplace saying, “Writing in college is much different because you do not have to deal with re-writing or editing documents until they meet the standard.  I was graded on what I completed, but I did not have to go back to correct the errors or go through an editing process.  Sometimes [in the workplace] it can take many versions of a document before it is edited and ready for signature.”

Next Steps

Now that the initial pilot has been completed, the WAC program plans to study this further by collecting enough data for a statistically valid sample. 
 

Quotes from alumni about workplace writing:
 

I strongly believed that once I graduated, I was not going to need many writing skills because I was going into engineering. I was wrong. I am writing daily.  If I knew this back then, I would have taken additional writing courses.

–Staff Engineer

 

Every order placed, every query I have to follow up, and every problem I handle has some form of written communication attached to it.

–Purchaser for a wholesale manufacturing firm

 

Writing is an important method of communicating in order to accomplish tasks and move activities forward to completion.  I think good writing skills do affect decision-making when hiring of qualified candidates

–Administrator, Medical Research UC Davis

 

My office produces drawings and specifications that are used for construction. The drawings are graphics with text. The text must convey any information that the graphics cannot…these reports must be technical and yet understood by non-engineers.

–Structural Engineer

 

While I was still a student at CSUS, I suppose I had an idea of the type of writing I would do as a law enforcement officer.  However, I did not fully appreciate or understand the necessity for clear and precise word-choice and sentence structure in crime reports. 

–Sergeant, Sacramento Sheriff’s Dept

 

In many cases, whether writing to current or potential clients or writing to co-workers, the type of writing that I do is generally persuasive…this is different than simply reporting experimental results; which is what I thought of engineering writing at the time of graduation.

–Lead Bridge Engineer

 

I don’t know what [student’s] expectations are, but they need to be flexible in their writing styles. They may have to adjust their style to meet the company’s needs.

–Staff Analyst

 

I received very little direct training for on-the-job writing in my education. To be able to take multiple pieces of information and present it clearly to another clearly and concisely was obtained in writing papers and in-class essays.

–Purchaser, Wholesale Manufacturing Firm

 

In the interview process here they have you write a writing sample right when you get to the interview.

–Assistant Civil Engineer