3 guidelines for coaching novice workplace writers

I’ve been thinking about the nuggets of wisdom I have to share with those who are new to teaching novices to write successfully in the workplace. I came up with 3 guidelines, which I shared with some new college instructors in a workshop last week.  I thought they were worth sharing on Pros Write as well.

Referring to these instructors as “coaches” is deliberate. Teaching and coaching are similar. But not identical.  Think about a golf pro.  She holds a teaching clinic where 10 or so students learn about chipping.  Her focus is on explaining a body of knowledge and offering general guidance.  She also offers one-on-one coaching lessons where her focus is on improving the chipping performance of the individual student. The new college instructors I spent time with last week will do some teaching. But their success will be measured by the quality of workplace-like documents produced by their individual students.  That means their role leans more heavily toward that of a coach.

Guideline #1: Make the consequences of performance quality explicit.

Each document a writer delivers within the workplace is a measure of his or her job performance. Take, for instance, the announcement I wrote about in Cut your email into 3 chunks for better digestion. (Follow the link to see the actual document I’ll be referring to throughout this post.)

Delivering that low quality announcement had consequences for three stakeholders as shown in the figure at right.

  1. consequencesFor readers, the results of receiving the announcement fell into two categories. First, the majority paid little attention to the message because they thought it was irrelevant to them. Second, a few attended to the message but were confused and frustrated because they couldn’t figure out why they received it.
  2. For the organization in which the writer worked, the results included loss of money from the wasted staff time and resources used to create, print and deliver this document to several thousand employees. Because so many readers ignored the content of the message, the organization also failed to gain compliance with their requested actions. Yet another result was loss of credibility for the specific office in which the writer worked.
  3. For the individual writer, the result of delivering this announcement was negative attention from employees, including loss of credibility in future messages.

If a writing coach doesn’t get a novice to understand the kind of consequences prompted by low quality documents in the workplace, there’s little motivation for the novice to care about improving his or her own performance quality.  Plus there’s little understanding of the roles written communication plays at work.

Guideline #1 is primarily the result of my experience with traditional-aged business students in the U.S. Non-traditional college students, who have workplace experience, benefit when coaches follow this guideline, too. But it is critical for traditional students, who lack that experience.

Guideline #2: Teach principles that explain performance quality.

perceptionsPart of being a good coach is helping a student understand what makes a performance good (or bad).  On the one hand, a writing coach can talk about perceptions.  A coach trying to help the writer of the poorly written announcement, might share thoughts like those shown at right.

While it’s helpful to know a reader thinks the details in the announcement are irrelevant, perceptions aren’t that useful to the writer because they’re not specific about what should be done differently to improve performance quality.

editsOn the other hand, a writing coach can talk about specific wording (or organization or whatever) like the example shown at left.

Telling the writer specifically how to write a more effective announcement is terrific for fixing this document. Sadly, the coach’s editing doesn’t help the writer learn anything of value for future documents — unless the writer can intuit the unstated explanation behind why the coach’s version is better than the writer’s.

principleAs a professional who makes my living as a writing coach, I have always felt obligated to provide an explicit explanation for performance quality. Those explanations are principles like the one shown at right.

A good workplace writing coach teaches novices about audience sensitivity, bottom lines, and directness in organizing content.  When combined, these concepts explain much about performance quality in the announcement and many other communication genres within Western business culture.

Specific examples are important in combination with principles. They are a means of showing how a principle applies in different documents or situations. Another means of teaching principles, my video tutorials include excerpts from workplace documents. I would also teach principles by asking students to read sample documents and come to class ready to discuss how a principle explains the quality (and consequences) of those documents.

It’s important to me that the principle behind effective bottom line placement is based on research. Not on tradition. Or personal preferences. That’s true of all of the principles included in 21 chapters of my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing (RPW). I’m not interested in teaching “rules” that are not grounded in theory and data. (I like to actually use my Ph.D. in both teaching and research.)

If a writing coach doesn’t get a novice to understand all of the basic principles that explain the quality of documents in the workplace, there’s little chance the novice will avoid negative attention when delivering documents in his or her future workplace.

Guideline #3: Provide deliberate practice, with individual support and feedback.

As I tried to convey in 3 Lessons from Great Performers video, expertise requires a lot of practice. The 10,000-hour rule (i.e., the time-period required to attain expertise) has been confirmed by research in many domains: music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. Innate talent does not significantly shorten the required time period. It took chess player Bobby Fisher 9 years to reach the status of Grandmaster.

A writing coach has to prepare a novice workplace writer for reality. It will take 250 hours of (3 months of 5-hour-per-day, 5-day-per-week) practice to move out of the beginner level and into the apprentice level of performance. That means most college students will still be beginning writers when they enter the workforce.

jack white 2Performance quality is lower when you move into a different context. Experts have contextualized knowledge. Jack White might be an expert guitar player — in the alternative genre. But, if he decides to start performing classical guitar pieces, he won’t be an expert in that new activity even though it involves playing a guitar.

So a coach preparing students who are novices at writing in the workplace has to overcome the overconfidence of successful academic writers. This is hard on coaches and students.

It turns out that the quality of practice matters, too. Deliberate practice is required. It’s different from work or play that involves the same activity, as psychology researchers noted when reviewing studies in this area:

Let us briefly illustrate the differences between work and deliberate practice. During a 3-hr baseball game, a batter may get only 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored.

In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance. In addition, engaging in deliberate practice generates no immediate monetary rewards and generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments.

phelpsDeliberate practice is not fun.  Sad. But true. Just ask Michael Phelps about the time he spends lifting weights or running or swimming with paddles or listening to his coach tell him about the minute details of his kicking technique.

A writing coach has to plan and execute practice that helps a novice build up and maintain the writing tools and techniques that make successful future performance more likely. Exercises in RPW aren’t fun for many students. But they are deliberate practice with the principles that explain document quality in the workplace. Coaches assign them because there are some serious consequences to document quality at work.

A writing coach also implements guideline #3 when providing feedback on individual performances. If I was coaching the writer of the announcement, I’d provide something like the rubric shown below. The rubric reinforces the lessons learned through practice exercises. Or when implementing guideline #2 with tutorials or discussions. But it focuses on the specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual writer’s current performance.

Final Words

Coaching novice workplace writers ain’t easy. But it sure is rewarding.  The reason I wrote Cut your email into 3 chunks for better digestion was that a former student was asked by his supervisors to share what he had learned that his colleagues at one of the Big Four audit firms had not.  That’s what I’d call positive attention at work.

If anyone is wondering, the vast majority of the novices who are the responsibility of these new instructors are traditional-aged, academically successful college students working toward an undergraduate degree in business at a large state university in the U.S. While my examples might be different for folks who are coaching a different group of students, the three guidelines would be the same.

Related Research

Follow links above to posts for research sources on bottom line placement, etc. The following research article is my primary source on deliberate practice and its role in developing expertise.

Ericsson et al. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), pp. 363-406.

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