Real World Writing: What Employers Expect
By Cynthia Linville, English Department
Many freshmen arrive at college believing they already know how to write. Much to their surprise, however, over half are placed in developmental English courses ("Learning Skills"). Just as high school seniors are unprepared for college writing, many college graduates are unprepared for on-the-job writing. A recruitment director for a Silicon Valley corporation emphasizes this point. "Considering how highly educated our people are, many can't write clearly in their day-to-day work" (Sean Phillips qtd. in Dillon). One Sacramento State graduate reports, "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" (CSUS WAC Alumni Writing Survey).
College students often don't realize how important on-the-job writing is. When the National Commission on Writing recently surveyed large U.S. corporations employing a total of 3.7 million people, the commission found that "writing is a ticket to professional opportunity," a skill that is key to obtaining a salaried job (National 3, 6). Over half of these corporations consider writing when hiring professional employees (National 3). "Applicants who provide poorly written letters wouldn't get an interview," one corporate spokesperson states (National 10). Another says, "Generally, the staffing office would not pass along a badly written resume to the hiring divisions" (National 10).
Writing is not only key for obtaining a job, but also key for advancing in a career. Half of the corporations surveyed consider writing a "threshold skill" for promotion (National 3). One employer states, "you can't move up without writing skills" (National 3). In a different study, Sacramento State graduates echo this point. "Due to the importance of writing in the law enforcement community, many promotional application processes include the submission of a writing sample," one police officer reports (CSUS WAC Alumni Survey). An engineer points out, "if [an employee] cannot write and convey information, advancement within the company will be very, very slow."
College students may also be surprised to find out how much on-the-job writing is required. The police officer in the CSUS WAC alumni survey study continues, "I was amazed at the large quantity of writing that is required for patrol officers and detectives. It is my experience that most, if not all, new officers are similarly surprised at the amount of report-writing in the law enforcement arena." The National Commission on Writing's data reinforces this point. Over half of the companies surveyed "frequently" require technical and formal reports, letters, and memos. "Communication through email . . . is almost universal," the study claims (National 4). One employer remarks, "Because of email, more employees have to write more often. Also, a lot more has to be documented" (National 4).
New employees are often surprised to find that the writing standards for
business email are much higher than the standards for personal email.
Text-messaging shorthand, such as "u" for "you," is unacceptable. A
Sacramento State graduate states, "Anything I email to a co-worker has the
potential to be seen by upper management, and I have to take that into
consideration. . . . If an order I am working on is from a high-level
customer, I assume that anything I email, external or internal, is likely
to be passed on to my boss or above"
(CSUS WAC Alumni Survey). Email writing can be so poor as to prevent communication of necessary information, as this email message sent in a high-tech Palo Alto firm clearly shows:
I updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie forwarded us via e-mail (they in Barry file) . . . to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with incorrect information . . . However after verifying control on JBL (JBL has the indicator as B . . . - I wanted to make sure with the recent changes - I process today - before Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to ‘C'. (Dillon)
One employer sums it up: "[I]n email clarity is critical" (Sean Phillips qtd. in Dillon).
In fact, when asked to identify which aspect of on-the-job writing is most valued, clear communication appears at the top of the list. Ninety-seven percent of corporations surveyed by the National Commission on Writing listed clarity, along with accuracy, as the most valued characteristic (National 28). Unclear communication can lead to lawsuits, lower productivity, costly mistakes, loss of clients, and low morale (Ferraro; Schnitt). A Sacramento area writing consultant explains, "Bad, weak writing is costing [companies] billions of dollars each year, mostly through poorly written proposals that end up causing firms to lose customers. . . . The worst is ambiguous writing that can lead to being sued" (Linda Vanderwold qtd. in Ferraro). One executive explains, "It's not that companies want to hire Tolstoy. But they need people who can write clearly, and many employees and applicants fall short of that standard" (Susan Trainman qtd. in Dillon).
Along with clarity, conciseness is also highly valued by 92% of corporations surveyed by the National Commission on Writing (National 28). "It's increasingly important to be able to convey content in a tight, logical, direct manner, particularly in a fast-paced technological environment" one corporate spokesperson notes (National 8). Sacramento State graduates in the alumni survey agree that avoiding wordiness is important at work. "Professional experience outside the classroom . . . taught me that writing clearly and concisely wasn't something that just my professors wanted to see" one administrative assistant notes. A staff analyst agrees. Business writing "is much more concise than what I was taught in school. Letters and memos are more direct and to the point." A police officer adds, "Flowery and eloquent writing may be acceptable in the academic arena, but simple sentences with clear [word choice are] preferred in the world of law enforcement."
Writing clearly and concisely requires specific attention to word choice and sentence structure. The police officer in the alumni study continues, "Subtle change in word-choice and sentence structure can suggest a different sequence of events, thoughts, and actions. Such differing perceptions can create major issues when analyzing the legality of a search [or] arrest. . . ." An engineering alumnus agrees. "I am surprised by the amount of care required to convey a specific idea . . . . It is not the amount of writing as much as the quality required." Studies show that careful attention to grammar is also needed. ). Another engineering alumnus says, "Writing in college is much different [than writing on-the-job] . . . because [students] do not have to deal with rewriting or editing documents until they meet the standard. . . . Sometimes it can take many versions of a document [at work] before it is edited and ready for signature."
Clarity, conciseness, and grammar aren't employers' only concerns about business writing, however. On-the-job writing must also demonstrate clear and persuasive logic. The National Commission on Writing found that corporate employers link "clear writing with clear thinking" (National 19). One employer comments, "My view is that good writing is a sign of good thinking. Writing that is persuasive, logical, and orderly is impressive. Writing that's not careful can be a signal of unclear thinking" (National 8). Sacramento State graduates in the WAC survey also emphasize the need for persuasive logic in their on-the-job writing. An engineer states, "Much of the writing required in the engineering field is done to convince others to accept [our] engineering judgments and the validity of [our] conclusions." A purchaser agrees:
Critical thinking, analysis, supporting and deconstructing arguments, organizing ideas, and appealing to an audience are a huge part of my job. . . . I have to be able to use very little information to present my argument to vendors, customers and [salespeople] in order to persuade them to do what I want. . . . I have to be able to reason out why or why not to stock certain products, and to defend my position to the company president.
As the purchaser highlights, awareness of audience and purpose can be key in business writing. She continues, "I have to be able to figure out what a salesperson, a warehouse worker, and even my boss want of me." Different business writing tasks require different styles of writing. The National Commission on Writing study found that "[c]orporate respondents make clear distinctions between the different requirements for writing, depending on purpose and audience" (12). An administrator in the WAC study explains:
In a work environment, [an employee is] subject to utilizing writing skills for different purposes. For example, [she] may need to provide information so a worker can accomplish a job, . . . to persuade someone [to] a course of action, . . . to communicate the evaluation of someone's performance, . . . or to advertise to attract candidates to a position .
Another Sacramento State graduate sums it up. "[Employees] need to be
flexible in their writing styles. They may have to adjust their style to
meet the company's needs"
(CSUS WAC Alumni Survey).
College students may be surprised by the importance of on-the-job writing and may feel overwhelmed by the high standards of writing that employers demand. However, the best time for students to raise their awareness about real world writing is while they are still students. One alumna the CSUS study says, "Students can prepare better for writing on their jobs by getting familiar with the types of documents" their employers will require. Another suggests, "Students can better prepare for on-the-job writing by doing [an] internship while in school." And lastly, an alumnus encourages students simply to "practice" their writing skills.
Dillon, Sam. "What Corporate American Cannot Build: A Sentence." New York Times 7 Dec 2004, late ed.: A1. Lexus Nexus. Calif. State U Sacramento Lib. 15 Apr. 2005. < http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe>
Ferraro, Cathleen. "The Write Stuff: When It Comes to Memos, Proposals and Reports, Most People Don't Have It – And That's Costing Corporate America." Sacramento Bee 19 May 1996. Lexus Nexus. Calif. State U Sacramento Lib. 15 Apr. 2005. <http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe>
Gray, Loretta S., and Paula Heuser. "Nonacademic Professionals' Perception of Usage Errors." Journal of Basic Writing 22.1 (2003): 50-70.
Hairston, Maxine. "Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage." College English 43.8 (1981): 794-806.
"Learning Skills Center Gives Students Solid Foundation." The Bulletin: A Publication of California State University, Sacramento 11-17 Apr 2005: 1.
National Commission on Writing. Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out, A Survey of Business Leaders. New York: College Board, 2004.
Schnitt, Paul. "Bad Writing by Execs is Costly to Business." Sacramento Bee 22 Apr 1990. Lexus Nexus. Calif. State U Sacramento Lib. 15 Apr. 2005. <http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe>