Shibboleths & White Shoes: 5 Lessons for Editors

This post is a response to comments from readers about my use of “insure” in Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it. I’m using this as a teaching moment for my technical editing students so it might be too long for others. Skip ahead if you just want to get to shibboleths or white shoes or the 5 lessons.

Insure vs. Ensure

On Twitter, one of my blog readers wrote,

I wonder, based on today’s heading, whether you ever make a distinction between insure and ensure.

This comment is similar to an author query by an editor. It’s a good query, in this case, because it can be interpreted as a simple question, and it’s carefully indirect if meant as a suggestion. After all, I didn’t enlist the reader to serve as my blog editor. And, even if I had, a good editor knows that ownership belongs with the author.

My immediate reaction to the query was to reflect on my usage: I use these two terms as synonyms and, for me, “ensure” is more conservative. I would use it in a context more formal than my blog. Later, I checked a couple of dictionaries to make sure my use of “insure” in the heading was standard. (The habit of looking things up is one sign of a good editor.)

My preferred dictionary, Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, lists multiple definitions for “insure.” The following ones are relevant to my headline choice:

  1. to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions (M-W)
  2. to secure or protect someone against (a possible contingency) (Oxford)
  3. as a synonym for “ensure” (Oxford)

Here’s what Oxford says about “insure” and “ensure.”

There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both British and US English the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is the more usual word, but insure is also sometimes used, particularly in US English, e.g. bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial; the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained

I was surprised to read “ensure” is more common so I investigated a little more. The chart shows the ngram of usage for the two words in books over the past 200 years.

ngramThe use of “ensure” increased dramatically around 1950. I’m not sure how my own idiolect diverged from the norm except that I grew up surrounded by linguistically conservative speakers whose usage must have reflected the equivalency of the two terms. “Ensure” is definitely the more recent usage.

As a result of this investigation, I’ll be more discriminating in my use of “insure” in the future. More importantly, this reader’s comment gave me the chance to show my students that, even with almost 30 years of editing experience, I am still actively learning how to do my job better.

Shibboleths

Another reader’s comment on my use of “insure” was more like an edit than a query.

You may wish to change your headline to fix the misspelling: editors ENSURE content matches audience readiness

The phrasing “may wish” makes this an indirect suggestion. But the use of “fix” and “misspelling” clearly classify my word choice as an error, and that prompted me to revisit the topic of shibboleths.

As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

The second reader comment categorizes my use of “insure” instead of “ensure” as a shibboleth. My usage signals I’m an outsider. If I want to be an insider, I have to change my language. I’ve already said that, although two dictionaries support my choice of “insure,” my investigation will make me more discriminating in my use of that word in the future. This additional teaching moment concerns the presumption of my error–the judgment about my lack of proper etiquette.

This is where my beliefs probably diverge from those of the reader who made the comment. My training as a linguist means I don’t believe anyone’s language is wrong. Ever. But I know our language can be ineffective in meeting our goals. That belief underlies my career as a writer, editor, and a teacher or coach of writers and editors. Many, perhaps most, editors share the worldview of prescriptive grammar–that language choices can be wrong. For a more detailed discussion of prescriptive grammar within the context of professional writing/editing, see my earlier post about grammar rules. Here’s a summary.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. So did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette. And such breaches are simply wrong. Like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

White Shoes

A condescending attitude based on arbitrary rules of etiquette continues and is pervasive among editors. A notable exception, editor Stan Carey writes,

Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.

I agree a prescriptive attitude is no advantage. In fact, I would say it’s a disadvantage to an editor.

You may wonder how editors can do their work without telling authors they are wrong. Let me make two points.

The first point is that I do recognize most shibboleths. As an editor, I suggest how authors can alter their language in order to pass through the gate if it leads them toward their final destination. If I’m working on behalf of the author, I do not dictate those changes. If I work on behalf of the publisher, I do. But my directives are based on compliance with the chosen style guide–not on judgments of proper etiquette. And I offer suggestions only to people who have invited me to.

The second point is that editors whose attitude is descriptive distinguish between shibboleths that matter and zombie rules.  I know rules about ending a sentence with a preposition and using passive voice are the latter type. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

John E. McIntyre, editor at the Baltimore Sun, makes the same points in this video.

Some of us choose not to carry on the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day.  As a teacher, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices. I want them to understand what it means to choose white shoes on a whole range of occasions. There is no simple right vs. wrong. I want students to learn how to think about language, how it can be managed to achieve rhetorical aims. Then they will be educated enough to make their own informed choices about shoes or language.

As McIntyre says, we should be capable of “judgment rather than adherence to some set of shibboleths.”

5 Lessons for Editors

  1. Authors own their texts.
  2. No editor can ever stop looking things up.
  3. Editors must continue to improve their craft.
  4. Editing often requires choices among multiple, viable options.
  5. All good editorial suggestions are based on an understanding of a text’s rhetorical context.

Further Reading

For those of you who are interested in more thoughtful editing,  here are some of my favorite sources:

Here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Theory vs Experience. Again.

This post has appeared before. It’s a different set of students today. And a different university this time. But much remains the same…

Many people believe you have to choose between experience and theory when you want to gain knowledge or skills. But the choice represents a false dichotomy. It’s on my mind today as I get ready to meet my first two classes of undergraduate students since 2012.

The first day of a college course is about two things: setting expectations and getting to know each other. One important way for students to get to know me is to hear my thoughts about how people learn. Here’s what I’m likely to say about theory and experience tonight.

How Do Adults Learn?

A researcher named David Kolb observed adults learning at work and discovered what we call the “experiential learning cycle.” Learning is non-linear. It’s a cyclical process with four phases. Let’s go through a simple example.

Credit: Jonathan Newton

Imagine you’re a swimmer and you want to learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event. You start by talking to an expert—a swimming coach named Bob. Bob tells you about butterfly. One of his points is that upper body strength is key. At this point you’ve got theoretical knowledge (some abstract understanding) but, if you quit now or if you and Bob just keep talking, you definitely won’t learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event.

phelps-practiceAt some point, Bob tells you to jump in the pool and swim laps with paddles to build upper body muscle. You are learning to compete in the 100m butterfly event by experimenting with something new. Again, if you just keep practicing or quit now, you won’t learn much.

You enter the next phase when you have the actual experience of competing in a 100m butterfly race. You place 5th. If you quit now – or you just keep entering more races – you won’t learn that much. You’ve got to continue to the next phase of the cycle.

Credit: David Goldman

After your experience, you have to think back on the race. What EXACTLY happened? Reflection on your experience is necessary. If you’re committed to continue learning how to swim the 100m butterfly …

swim phelps turnyou start the cycle again by talking to Coach Bob, who theorizes your turn technique slowed you down. This is just an idea until you get in the pool and experiment with new turn techniques. Then, in the next race, you might experience a win. Or not.

The point is that as long as you are learning, you keep going through this cycle – this spiral – of conceptualization, experimentation, experience, and reflection. Expert knowledge will require about 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on your part. Michael Phelps started swimming competitively at 7 and made the Olympic team at 15. But he didn’t win any Olympic medals until 4 more years passed. (Note that it took Bobby Fischer, perhaps the best chess player in history, 9 years of learning to reach grandmaster.) Reaching just the level of apprentice will require that you put in 250 hours – that’s 5 hours of quality practice per week for 3 months. kolbs cycle

What Does This Mean for My Students?

Although my example focuses on a sport, the learning cycle applies equally well to any workplace task or skill. Real learning requires both theory and experience. Here are some ways the learning cycle influences how I have designed our course.

First, the activities I’ve planned will require you to move back and forth between thinking and doing. You’re probably more comfortable with one of them. But the quality of both matter.

Second, I believe learning is a process, not an outcome. If you focus only on grades (an outcome), you’ll be frustrated. And you won’t learn as much.

Third, I expect you to take risks. Sometimes you’ll fall down. Failure is necessary for learning. I will do all I can to make it “safe” for you to fail.

Finally, it’s an advantage to have a teacher/coach to guide you through the learning process. I’ll give you as much individual attention as I can, but there are limits on what I can offer. (I mean Nick Saban has 9 assistants to coach 125 or so football players!) So I expect you to coach each other. Your coaching should lead to deeper knowledge, too.

So let’s get started!

Related Readings

Kolb & Kolb (2009). Experiential learning theory. In S. J. Armstrong & C. V. Fukami (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development (pp. 1–59). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ericsson et al. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.

 

Theory? Or experience?

Many people believe you have to choose between experience and theory when you want to gain knowledge or skills. But the choice represents a false dichotomy. It’s on my mind today as I get ready to meet my first two classes of undergraduate students since 2012.

The first day of a college course is about two things: setting expectations and getting to know each other. One important way for students to get to know me is to hear my thoughts about how people learn. Here’s what I’m likely to say about theory and experience today.

How Do Adults Learn?

A researcher named David Kolb observed adults learning at work and discovered what we call the “experiential learning cycle.” Learning is non-linear. It’s a cyclical process with four phases. Let’s go through a simple example.

Credit: Jonathan Newton

Imagine you’re a swimmer and you want to learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event. You start by talking to an expert—a swimming coach named Bob. Bob tells you about butterfly. One of his points is that upper body strength is key. At this point you’ve got theoretical knowledge (some abstract understanding) but, if you quit now or if you and Bob just keep talking, you definitely won’t learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event.

phelps-practiceAt some point, Bob tells you to jump in the pool and swim laps with paddles to build upper body muscle. You are learning to compete in the 100m butterfly event by experimenting with something new. Again, if you just keep practicing or quit now, you won’t learn much.

You enter the next phase when you have the actual experience of competing in a 100m butterfly race. You place 5th. If you quit now – or you just keep entering more races – you won’t learn that much. You’ve got to continue to the next phase of the cycle.

Credit: David Goldman

After your experience, you have to think back on the race. What EXACTLY happened? Reflection on your experience is necessary. If you’re committed to continue learning how to swim the 100m butterfly …

swim phelps turnyou start the cycle again by talking to Coach Bob, who theorizes your turn technique slowed you down. This is just an idea until you get in the pool and experiment with new turn techniques. Then, in the next race, you might experience a win. Or not.

The point is that as long as you are learning, you keep going through this cycle – this spiral – of conceptualization, experimentation, experience, and reflection. Expert knowledge will require about 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on your part. Michael Phelps started swimming competitively at 7 and made the Olympic team at 15. But he didn’t win any Olympic medals until 4 more years passed. (Note that it took Bobby Fischer, perhaps the best chess player in history, 9 years of learning to reach grandmaster.) Reaching just the level of apprentice will require that you put in 250 hours – that’s 5 hours of quality practice per week for 3 months. kolbs cycle

What Does This Mean for My Students?

Although my example focuses on a sport, the learning cycle applies equally well to any workplace task or skill. Real learning requires both theory and experience. Here are some ways the learning cycle influences how I have designed our course.

First, the activities I’ve planned will require you to move back and forth between thinking and doing. You’re probably more comfortable with one of them. But the quality of both matter.

Second, I believe learning is a process, not an outcome. If you focus only on grades (an outcome), you’ll be frustrated. And you won’t learn as much.

Third, I expect you to take risks. Sometimes you’ll fall down. Failure is necessary for learning. I will do all I can to make it “safe” for you to fail.

Finally, it’s an advantage to have a teacher/coach to guide you through the learning process. I’ll give you as much individual attention as I can, but teaching ~70 students at one time means there are limits on what I can offer. (I mean Coach Saban has 9 assistants to coach 125 or so football players!) So I expect you to coach each other. Your coaching should lead to deeper knowledge, too.

So let’s get started!

Related Readings

Kolb & Kolb (2009). Experiential learning theory. In S. J. Armstrong & C. V. Fukami (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development (pp. 1–59). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ericsson et al. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.

 

Shibboleths for National Grammar Day

For National Grammar Day, I’m posting a slightly edited version of “Shibboleths and entering the professions,” which appeared on Pros Write back in 2012. I wrote the original in response to the raised eyebrows after I posted  “Language choices can be unsuccessful — but never wrong.” For some readers, my belief that language can never be wrong contradicts with my belief that I can prepare students for writing successfully in the workplace. The apparent contradiction deserved an explanation. So this post is about grammar rules. (I’ll get to “shibboleths” in a minute.)

According to Parker and Riley (two contemporary linguists) in Grammar for Grammarians:

“grammar” is not a simple, unified subject. Rather, it is a cover term for at least four different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, conceptions of grammar: prescriptive, descriptive, generative, and contextual.

My university training as a linguist means I studied the latter three types of grammar rules. (I learned the prescriptive type in elementary school.) My role as a writing teacher means I often interact with people who assume I share the worldview of prescriptive grammar — that language can be wrong.  I don’t. Let me explain why not, borrowing from Parker and Riley’s chapter 2 on the prescriptive period.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. And so did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette and is therefore wrong. (You know, like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.) Sadly, even highly educated people don’t know the history behind these vapid rules.

I’ll give you an example. Robert Lowth, who wrote the highly influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762, is the subject of the portrait in today’s post. He believed there had been a decline in writing standards and that his job was to remedy the decline by formulating a set of rules for proper behavior. One of his rules is called preposition-stranding:

Keep a preposition with its object.

For Lowth and his followers, this means “the party you went to” is wrong, while “the party to which you went” is right. Parker and Riley explain:

The rule apparently is based on the fact that in Latin (as in all Romance languages), prepositions always precede a noun phrase and thus never appear in sentence-final position.

So, you should ask, what is the relevance of Latin as a model for English? Well . . . there is no direct line of development from Latin to English. Rather English evolved from Germanic roots. (I’ve added red circles to the diagram from the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.) Also, English is structurally different from Latin, using few inflections and a basic verb-object order. Too, by Lowth’s time, Latin had been a dead language for more than a milleneum. (No one outside of a monastery spoke it after ~700 AD.)  The fact that a dead language doesn’t change, while a living one cannot stop changing was apparently lost on Lowth and his prescriptivist pals.

You should also definitely ask: what were Lowth’s credentials for creating rules for English usage? He served as Bishop of Oxford and was a professor of Hebrew poetry (in other words, The Old Testament). I willingly recognize Lowth’s expertise in reading Hebrew and Latin. He might also have been a good writer. (I can’t judge the performance of 18th century British scholars.) But I won’t grant him expertise over the language I use today. His rule about preposition placement convinces me he had little enough understanding of the language used during his own lifetime.

Because of my studies in English language, I know prescriptive rules like preposition-stranding are shibboleths. As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

If my students’ language signals they may not pass inside the gate where professionals reside, I never tell them they’re wrong. I do sometimes tell them their language will elicit negative attention from some workplace readers.  But only when they break prescriptive “rules” that count as shibboleths for professional membership. It’s my responsibility to know which rules matter. Because of my studies in writing and business communication, I know ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t one of them. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

In a professional writing course, I always explain levels of formality (see my video on word choice) to everyone. I explain grammatical shibboleths to individual students whose usage signals they belong outside the gate: double negatives and subject-verb agreement are two prime examples. As needed, I explain a few other mechanical issues that serve as shibboleths: misspellings, sentence fragments, and comma splices (see my video on punctuation).

What is most sad to me is that so-called language experts (that means most English teachers, who study little, if anything, about language) perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated. But they were denied any real language education. They did not learn that English does not belong to those long-dead, reactionary, literary men of the 18th century who acted as the judges of etiquette based on their own tastes.

I choose not to continue the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day. And I choose not to promote the use of shibboleths to teach students how to enter their chosen professions.  To me, there is a critical difference between telling students their language is wrong and telling them their language is likely to be unsuccessful in certain situations because it will distract some readers and undermine their credibility. As an educator, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices.

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

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.

Fun with Weird Al’s “Mission Statement”

Weird Al's Mandatory Fun

 

MTV News says Weird Al sounds just like your boss. What? They’re talking about “Mission Statement,” the final video release this past week from the Mandatory Fun album. Weird Al Yankovic does not only make fun of the way the less powerful use language. This time his target is the language of the powerful. The song’s a parody of corporate jargon using “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN).

Weird Al thought it was

ironic to juxtapose [corporate-speak] with the song stylings of CSN, whose music pretty much symbolizes the antithesis of corporate America.

.

 

Pros Write is about helping writers manage the perceptions that others have of them and their ideas based on language choices. As one linguist explains,

command of standard English rules benefits a life trajectory even if the rules are arbitrary. That you’ll have a hard time getting a job is old news. More to the point, if you can’t handle standard English, even if you have a job, you might not get a date.

Writers who use corporate-speak also earn negative attention — as “Mission Statement” makes clear. My goal is to help people communicate their message. In a way that is simple and useful to their audience. After all, there’s meaningful work to be done. But it’s a minefield out there . . .

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.

3 lessons from great performers for workplace writers

Because documents are performances and great performers can teach us what it takes to deliver a great performance, I have used that theme to create a short (3:48) cartoon. My goal is to get people, mostly amateurs ( . . . beginners), to think about the amount and kind of WORK involved in being a great performer as a workplace writer. Swimmer Michael Phelps, musician Jack White, and actor James Earl Jones are featured as great performers. (Don’t you adore the Sprint commercials with James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell? I could go on about their rhetorically based humor but let me try to stay on track . . .)


I am continually surprised at how nonchalant people are about learning to write in the workplace. (In other words, they give it little, if any, thought at all.) Yet the same people complain about the quality of what they have to read at work constantly! And, of course, I’ve written about the potentially negative outcomes of poor writing for both individuals and organizations many times.

For those with an interest in the nuts and bolts, I used a free account with PowToon to create the video and produce the finished product. It’s pretty amazing. The audio was recorded and edited with Camtasia. I’m not exactly satisfied — especially with the audio — but I have got to stop playing around and get to work.

Happy New Year!

What is outstanding business communication research?

Dr Kim at ABC 2013About a year ago, I posted Kitty, ABC, and beautiful locations when I learned that the Association for Business Communication (ABC) chose me as the winner of the Kitty O. Locker Outstanding Researcher Award. I’ve just returned from New Orleans where I attended the ABC’s annual convention and had the privilege of addressing the convention audience in a plenary address titled “What is outstanding business communication research?”

My basic message — after thanking some terrific colleagues and a little self-indulgent reflection on my prior research — was that I don’t think anybody’s research is outstanding unless it has an impact in the REAL world. That means practice. Or teaching. Both rely heavily on platitudes rather than providing advice grounded in business communication research.

So, while I’m honored to receive the Outstanding Researcher Award because it signals I’ve had an impact among other researchers, I still have work to do . . . Here is a recording of my remarks for those of you who might be interested!

What I will say on the first day of a writing class . . . someday

you dont say

I’m sharing a delightful first-day-of-class speech from John McIntyre, teacher of copy editing at Loyola U in Maryland and columnist at The Baltimore Sun. His words ring true for anyone who has taught others to write for the real world. I’ll share this with students in the future. (Did I mention I’m on a sabbatical from teaching?)

It is only right, honorable, and just for me to tell you up front what you are in for. This is not a gut course. This is not an easy “A.” Some of you may be lucky to take home a “C” at semester’s end. Writing is difficult. It does not come to us as naturally as speech, and we have to spend years learning it. Editing is even harder than writing. We may be able to write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically.

But before we can even think about the analytical aspect, we will have to attend to basics of grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the more than six hundred students who have preceded you in this class, you will be shaky on the fundamentals. It’s not your fault. You were either not taught, or you were badly taught. You will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught. You will have to catch up to be an effective editor, and there is not much time.

I must also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly, unrelievedly dull. A student from a previous term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” Exactly. So will you. Editing is done word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you scream.

I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can escape.

Now, for those of you willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I can explain basics of grammar so that you can shore up spots where you are shaky. I can advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I can show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.

You are about to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.

Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft that one learns it by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class.

I can’t turn you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters? But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by semester’s end be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead, parsecs ahead, of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.

So put in the time. My function here is to help you—you know, I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. One previous semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.

One more thing. My manner and sense of humor may not be to your taste. That is not a course requirement. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can profit from this semester is sharpening your coping skills.

Now, shall we get down to the particulars?

Thanks, John. It’s nice to hear from a kindred spirit!