Do good students make bad workplace writers?

A+In my very first post (now the Pros Write About page), I stated how bizarre I find it that teachers who like to read literature are tasked with teaching young people how to write. I’m not the only one who has noted the ensuing — and negative — consequences. It turns out that many industry people agree.

Copywriter Scott Flood makes a similar point in Business writing: Why it’s okay for English teachers to despise your ads and brochures:

High schools and colleges teach a style of writing that’s used only within the halls of academe. Unfortunately, that often cumbersome, frequently unfriendly style sticks with many students long after graduation. Want proof? Read some of the memos circulating around your office.

In Students struggle for words, the Wall Street Journal says,

Most writing is taught by English departments, who require a certain number of words, have all writing assignments about novels, and reward flowery prose. Business writing has to be completely different; very direct and to the point. So even those people with “good writing skills” in high school and college will have to unlearn their style when they move into the business world.

I shared Why trying to learn clear writing in college is like trying to learn sobriety in a bar from Forbes a while back. As the folks at Klariti say in Why good teachers make us bad business writers,

To develop your (and your kid’s) career, wouldn’t it make sense to learn business writing skills instead of elegant, academic writing styles?

Yes. It would make sense.

What is lacking is a rhetorical education. I wrote about that in one of my earlier posts as well. Imagine how much better prepared young people would be for the workplace if they were asked to read even one brief workplace report during their 12+ years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided the students in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? Plus, a teacher asked students to write different genres — say about similar content — for different audiences. If all of that happened, students would have developed genre awareness. They would have received a rhetorical EDUCATION that would lead to better workplace success!

So why doesn’t this rhetorical education take place?  I suspect the primary culprit is the pressure on K-12 to get students into college. That means preparing them for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.  Guess what kind of writing they test?  That’s right. Complex syntax and literary vocabulary are rewarded. Creativity and self-centered expression are rewarded. Narrative organization (with the bottom line last) is rewarded. And little is different in most freshman composition classrooms, where the focus is on making sure students can write exam essays and research reports for teachers who already know the answers and are paid to read whatever the students produce.

As someone whose raison d’etre has been to help students make the transition from school to work, I spend most of my time just trying to get students to believe me when I say they don’t know how to write successfully for the workplace . . . despite their history of good grades.

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  1. Absolutely! I was turned down for teacher’s college because I didn’t have the right English classes from my translation degree…they wanted literature, etc. I felt like saying, yes, but I can WRITE!

    Here’s another quote for you:

    If I have one criticism, it is that teachers could be more demanding about the quality of the written work they accept from students, and encourage students to demand good standards of written expression from themselves.

    –Gerard Kilpatrick, Clarity, November 2004, No. 52

  2. I see this all of the time in my work with very bright nonnative speakers of English in the STEM disciplines. The English writing they were taught via EFL in their home country and ESL in the States taught them very little about the genres in STEM, let alone how to write them.

  3. First of all I want to say wonderful blog! I had a quicck quiestion in which I’d like to
    ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear youir head prior too writing.

    I’ve had difficulty clearing my thughts in gettihg mmy
    thoughts out there. I truly doo take pleasure in writig however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes
    are lost simply just trying tto figure out how too begin. Any recommendations or tips?

    1. Thanks for your kind comments.

      I find the actual drafting of a message is simple when I already have the content and organization fully figured out. I am not a proponent of writing to figure out what you want to say because it doesn’t work for me. Writing for an audience (as opposed to yourself) means being strategic: That means I recommend planning BEFORE you draft. You can see what I mean here:

      Once you have a detailed plan for what content to include and what order it should appear in your document, putting the plan into words is straightforward.

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