Why Can’t People Write – a LinkedIn Answer

This was originally posted on my personal blog on January 19, 2008.

I was over at LinkedIn answering a question and when I was done, I figured it was relevant to post it here as well:

The question from Michael Seidle was:

Why can’t people write?

Every time we go to find new employees, we run into an interesting phenomena: a lot of candidates look GREAT until we email them after the interview and get a response back and discover the quality of their writing is, shall we say, defective. Even worse, we’ve had people slip thought the cracks and get hired. Given the importance of email, documentation and communication, are solid writing skills necessary for white collar workers and customer facing employees? How do you ensure candidates have decent writing skills short of giving an essay test? Should we just give the essay test?

And my answer:

I can’t answer the “why can’t they write” question. If it was a matter of cursive or handwriting – well, who cares anymore? That is my opinion anyway.

I know people (my son) who can’t write legibly to save his life – quite literally.

He just never mastered the fine motor skills early on and the schools kept passing him through until he got to middle school and high school and the teachers started complaining about his writing.

But he can type about 60+ WPM and put together coherent sentences and paragraphs better than most college educated students.

I’ve ALWAYS done a lot of interviewing via e-mail – so I get an idea of how well they write, how quickly they respond to e-mails, how polite they are, etc.

I also always ask for a few writing samples:

  • a piece of long correspondence either complaining to a vendor/customer or handling a customer complaint.
  • a document outlining a policy or procedure
  • something else they are proud of

That last one is key. You want people to have a certain pride about their writing. That way, no matter how good they are – they’ll always be looking to improve.

For me, it isn’t just grammar and spelling and putting sentences or paragraphs together.

Its more about readability:

Is their writing concise?

Do they use short sentences and paragraphs? Do they use a lot of white space to cut down on reader fatigue (especially important online)?

Do they get their point across at exactly the right time (not too early, not too late)?

Does their writing have a rhythm?

When applicable, can they tell a good story to get their point across?

Are we asking too much? Probably. For the last few decades our institutions of higher learning have been churning out engineers, accountants, MBAs, and computer scientists by the millions.

Over the next decade or so those skills will become commodities – if they aren’t already.

That’s why a liberal arts education where writing is the bulk of the work is going to be so important for college graduates over the next few decades.

The new economy needs people who can synthesize information, who can create memorable experiences, and who can tell a compelling story.

The best advice I can give to college and high school students isn’t even mine:

“The MFA is the new MBA” – Daniel Pink

About Vinny

I write about productivity because I’m trying to master it. Not because I have too much to do, but because I want to do more than I’m doing now.
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