by Katharine Hansen Ph.D.
Be sure to read our main career/job skills article How to Capitalize on the Looming Skills Shortage.
In 1997 while writing the book Write Your Way to a Higher GP, Dr. Randall Hansen and I cited several studies about the importance of writing skills and how too many workers, especially at the entry-level, lack these skills. [See: The Importance of Good Writing Skills.] More than a decade later little has changed except that writing has become even more important.
Given the relative informality of email, it may surprise some to know that email's ubiquity is a major reason writing skills have become so crucial. Email is so heavily and globally used to communicate in the workplace -- replacing the telephone as the primary communications venue -- that unclear, garbled, or poorly-written emails waste time money and productivity.
With the rise of email in the workplace, the demand for better writing skills is growing.
According to the College Board's National Commission on Writing in 2004, two-thirds of salaried workers in large U.S. companies have jobs that require writing. Bringing workers' skills up to speed requires $3.1 billion annually in training. The study described writing as a "threshold skill" for employee selection and promotion.
Jack Shulman in Harvard Business Review points out that better writing can improve the customer experience as well as enhance product development through well-written instruction manuals process descriptions and procedure guides.
As noted in our article How to Capitalize on the Looming Skills Shortage a 2006 study by a consortium of business-research organizations especially singled out writing skills as deficient among high-school community-college and four-year college grads. A leader from one of the organizations Susan R. Meisinger president and CEO of the Society for Human Resources Management said "The importance of learning to communicate in writing and orally is paramount. Communication is a critical skill in the workplace and one that many new entrants lack."
The College Board's 2004 study revealed that a majority of U.S. employers said that a third of workers fail to meet the writing requirements of their positions. "Writing skills are fundamental in business," a survey respondent in that report said, "It's increasingly important to be able to convey content in a tight logical direct manner particularly in a fast-paced technological environment."
Improving even one worker's weak writing skills is a daunting undertaking; a few tips and suggestions may bring a bit of clarity to the workplace writing scene and help those who write on the job to develop a competitive advantage. Focus on increasing your writing skills if you want to move up in your career.
- Author Guy Kawasaki advises new workforce entrants to learn to write a one-page report and a five-sentence email. The College Board also suggests brevity and limiting written communication to key points.
- Writing in Toronto's Globe and Mail, Ingrid Sapona exhorts writers to focus on style organization layout and reader-focused writing. The easiest way to address the last point is to "imagine you are telling a story to an intelligent friend," Sapona writes. She advises writers to use storytelling to establish rapport and avoid dull, tedious prose.
- The College Board's study noted that the most sought-after skills are accuracy clarity spelling punctuation grammar and conciseness.
- Experts caution against overly formal stiff writing as well as clichés such as "at the end of the day."
- Copious resources are available on the Web to help with writing, including free sources like Purdue Online Writing Lab and tuition-backed services like Business Writing Center.
- Short writing workshops that only last a few days may not be enough to revamp your writing skills. You focus should be on improving writing actually used in the workplace.
- Workplace writers should take the time to revise their work not an easy proposition among entry-level workers accustomed to text- and instant-messaging. Reading your writing aloud will likely also uncover errors.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
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