I need your help . . .

. . . to understand what influences writing quality in the workplace. Everyone has an opinion. And it usually focuses on blaming someone else. The public, through their legislators, blames educators. Educators blame legislators. Or businesses. And businesses blame both.

What truly happens? I mentioned my interest in this topic a year ago in Why hasn’t plain language become the norm. This fall, I am spending my sabbatical gathering information from workplaces to find out. I expect to spread the blame — and responsibility. This afternoon, I begin talking to people in one organization about what they’re reading and writing at work. I’ll share some of what I learn here in the months to come.

And I’m still looking for participants — especially those in non-profit organizations. The brochure shown below offers you the big picture. But you can get details from me.

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  1. I think the problem is that most reports are drafted by subject-matter experts who were not selected or promoted for their ability to write. Some happen to be good writers, but most are not. Many don’t see writing as important. But most don’t know that they write badly, and might be surprised to learn that their work is clumsy, repetitive or otherwise difficult to understand. The latter group is more open to support.

    The solution lies in a combination of training, a concise style guide (i.e. one that will be used by the experts), and ongoing feedback from an editor with a mandate both to maintain standards and to help the experts produce better quality first drafts.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Woody.

      Your claim that workplaces are filled with people who are subject-matter experts with limited writing ability is supported by the interview I did yesterday. My organizational informant was a mechanical engineer who is the plant supervisor for an international manufacturing company. He freely shared his struggle with both reading and writing (from his early diagnosis as dyslexic through college and into the workplace) in contrast with his technical expertise. His organization provides no formal writing support. And that’s one of the reasons he was able to get permission for me to conduct research within his organization. I’ve promised some consulting or training in trade for access to research informants.

      What intrigues me is why some businesses take responsibility for providing their employees with training, style guides, etc. and others do not. Hopefully, my research will shed some light on that question.

      1. This article is right on point.


        Think you’re a good business writer? CORINNE LABOSSIERE

        Contributed to The Globe and Mail

        Published Thursday, Sep. 05 2013, 7:00 PM EDT

        Sometimes it’s kind of like watching auditions for Canada’s Got Talent . Does that fellow actually think his tuneless wailing qualifies him to be the next Michael Bublé? We can have a similar reaction when we hear someone proclaim, “I’m a good writer” – and then receive a report from this person that’s literally indecipherable.

        Both situations may be linked to the “above average effect.” A study some years ago by David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that most people, regardless of their level of competence with a skill, perceive themselves to be better than average.

        And it gets worse. This concept doesn’t include those people who boast about their impressive writing skills but are in fact downright terrible writers. These folks may be suffering from “Dunning-Kruger effect.” The same study found those who are the least skilled tend to rate their abilities higher than others. The worse they were the better they thought they were.

        So essentially, few of us recognize when we can’t write particularly well. If there was a reality show competition for writers, you can bet we’d be reading some pretty dreadful stuff.

        Still, when it comes to building a successful career, in many fields good writing skills are essential.

        Professionals, managers and executives must be able to write clearly, accurately and competently. They must be able to prepare clear, concise e-mails. Understandable reports. Letters that make a point. Persuasive proposals. Presentations that engage audiences. So, if you want your career to progress you need to practise writing.

        Let’s begin from the premise that most of us are worse writers than we think we are. The good news is that when we start to improve, we generally recognize that we needed improvement, and we usually want to continue to improve. Here are some tips to get started.

        Read. Reading gives us insights and ideas, expands our vocabulary and improves our grammar. Read the business documents produced by colleagues who are considered by others to be good writers. Read newspapers, blogs, magazines, books that interest you; think about the style of writing and how it engages you.

        Write. The more we write, the easier it becomes. Start by finding out the writing style of the organization you work for. Ask if there’s a style guide and study it. Offer to help write documents and request feedback.

        Pause before you send. Never write quickly and then immediately submit the document you just completed. This includes e-mails. Poorly written documents lead to confusion and frustration. Instead, take a break, even if only for a few minutes. Walk away, clear your head and return with a refreshed mind and re-read what you’ve written.

        Re-read. Read from your intended reader’s perspective. If you received this document, would it make sense? Have you answered all of the relevant questions the reader might ask: who, what, where, when, why, how? Think about how you might make your points clearer. Then proofread. Don’t rely on auto spell-check; look for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors.

        Still unsure? If your writing task is important and you’re not confident that it will receive the response you want, ask for feedback from a colleague whose opinion you respect.

        It’s also important to practise writing away from the demands of the workplace. Write what you like: articles, plays, comics, books – whatever inspires you. Any kind of writing you do will also improve your business writing skills.

        Consider online or in-person workshops or courses. Or find a writing mentor who can critique your (nonconfidential) writing assignments and help you identify your writing strengths and weaknesses and help you develop your skills.

        Never stop practising and you’ll keep improving. I apologize if this article wasn’t written as well as you expected. I may be suffering from above average or Dunning-Kruger effect. But I’m working on it.

        Corinne LaBossiere, ABC, APR, is a communications specialist, writer and editor at CGL Communications who helps individuals and organizations communicate effectively.

  2. Hi,

    What a great research project! I’ll look forward to hearing more about it.

    A few things I believe influence the way people write (from my readings, intuitions and experience; I haven’t conducted formal research to test these ideas):

    – People’s notions of what good writing or professional writing is supposed to be like: Many of these “ideals” are unconscious, leftovers from school, learned by osmosis from bad examples, etc. They impact the choices people make and the end result.

    – How “people-focused” the organization is: I’ve found that organizations that are really dedicated to creating a positive customer experience and employee experience tend to pay more attention to the way they communicate, including in writing.

    – Lack of awareness that workplace writing serves a practical purpose: it’s about getting stuff done and getting results! That new purpose is different from what schoolroom writing was all about, so it requires a shift in mindset.

    – Focus on grammar, spelling and producing an error-free text. It often seems that 99% of writing training and writing advice are about avoiding common mistakes. There is a lot less talk about the communication side of writing, and how to make that communication work better.

    – Poor thinking!
    – Poor processes! (copy & paste, approval process, etc.)

    You’ve chosen a fascinating field and a fascinating topic for your research!

    Dominique Joseph
    (B.A. Translation, M.A. Communication)

  3. Here is what doesn’t seem to influence writing enough:
    * a good understanding of our audiences
    * a clear understanding of what we are trying to accomplish with our writing

    Focus is really on content, and the importance of “packaging” is largely ignored.

    Of course, this is only anecdotal (valid for my workplace).

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