What is writing for?

Whatever the troubles kids are facing, I usually work my way back to the same conclusion: the important part of teaching is articulating the ideal, giving students the vision, telling the story. If they can see it, the rest is up to them.

I wonder how much of the trouble is that writing has been lodged in the English classes, which are associated with “soft” things such as poetry and fiction. Would it help if boys understood that significant achievement in science and business are quite unlikely without strong writing ability?

To clarify what writing is and why it matters, it might help to do a small set of vignettes of heroic or great writing, making clear that what’s really happening in writing is that a person is struggling at the limits of what can be seen and known, drawing on or calling forth sources of spiritual and intellectual inspiration to push back the darkness just a bit.

I think of Lincoln composing the Gettysburg Address, changing the meaning of the Civil War, revising the arguments away from Constitutional debates about states rights and such and articulating with new power the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the meaning of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I think of Einstein sailing on a lake in Switzerland, struggling with images of how the cosmos overhead worked and of how to organize an explanation of it into a few thousand words that would transform human thought.

In less lofty but still vital realms, the ability to research and write a coherent and detailed business plan is the secret to freeing tens of thousands of dollars in capital to operationalize a dream.

The ability to research and write an organized, detailed, and imaginative grant proposal is the key to moving forward with dreams in a vast segment of today’s economy, including all of the nonprofit segment and much of education and government.

Still less lofty but still very important are the facts gathered by the National Commission on Writing (http://www.writingcommission.org/) and included in their important report on writing and the workplace. Facts like these should be common knowledge among students, I think:

• Writing is a “threshold skill” for both employment and promotion, particularly for
salaried employees. Half the responding companies report that they take writing into
consideration when hiring professional employees. “In most cases, writing ability
could be your ticket in . . . or it could be your ticket out,” said one respondent.

• People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired and are unlikely
to last long enough to be considered for promotion. “Poorly written application
materials would be extremely prejudicial,” said one respondent. “Such applicants
would not be considered for any position.”

• Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing
responsibility. “All employees must have writing ability . . . Manufacturing
documentation, operating procedures, reporting problems, lab safety, waste-disposal
operations—all have to be crystal clear,” said one human resource director.

• Eighty percent or more of the companies in the service and finance, insurance,
and real estate (FIRE) sectors, the corporations with the greatest employment growth
potential, assess writing during hiring. “Applicants who provide poorly
written letters wouldn’t likely get an interview,” commented one insurance executive.

• A similar dynamic is at work during promotions. Half of all companies take writing
into account when making promotion decisions. One succinct comment: “You can’t
move up without writing skills.”

• More than half of all responding companies report that they “frequently” or “almost
always” produce technical reports (59 percent), formal reports (62 percent), and
memos and correspondence (70 percent). Communication through e-mail and
PowerPoint presentations is almost universal. “Because of e-mail, more employees
have to write more often. Also, a lot more has to be documented,” said one respondent.

• More than 40 percent of responding firms offer or require training for salaried
employees with writing deficiencies. Based on the survey responses, it appears that
remedying deficiencies in writing may cost American firms as much as $3.1 billion
annually. “We’re likely to send out 200–300 people annually for skills-upgrade
courses like ‘business writing’ or ‘technical writing,’” said one respondent. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/28 at 05:52 PM

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