Do you like your job but feel your career isn’t advancing as quickly as you’d like? Sure, you’re good at what you do, yet the higher-ups don’t seem to notice, do they? Plus, most of your coworkers are probably good at what they do too, so what makes you special? How can you give your career a boost?
Making yourself stand out from the crowd can be a real challenge. This may be true even though you have all the ingredients for a great career: the right degree, good experience, excellent skills, and a great personality. But, somehow your momentum seems to have stalled a bit. Perhaps you’re even thinking about changing employers, hoping maybe that will jump-start things.
Whoa! Hold on there a minute! Before making such a drastic move, first consider one of the best-kept secrets you’ll ever hear:
Today, the writing skills of most people are generally so poor that all you have to do is write reasonably well and you will be noticed.
Don’t panic. Notice I said “reasonably well.” You do not have to be the next Ernest Hemingway or J.K. Rowling of your workplace.
What? That’s it? Before you dismiss this notion as overly simple, stop and think about it. How many emails do you receive each day with poor wording or bad grammar? Some are downright embarrassing! These e-duds may not only come from coworkers, either. You’ve probably seen a few from those higher up the food chain who should know better. Well, at least you would think they should.
Bad Writing is Everywhere
Like weeds in a lawn, bad writing seems to be spreading. Crimes against good writing aren’t limited to emails. Look around. You will see glowing mistakes in reports, signs, PowerPoint presentations, and almost anything else. I remember seeing a large sign in my city for a business which provides manufacturers’ representative services. If you are not familiar with such firms, they go out and sell on behalf of manufacturers who do not have their own sales representatives. A very critical and highly visible service indeed! Sadly, the sign actually read “manufactures representative” services. Yeah, they couldn’t even spell the service they claimed to provide! Consider another sign I saw at a local convenience store which sells liquor. They must have been sampling their own goods when they advertised that they sell “liqour.”
But, my all-time favorite goof is the copy for a pre-movie ad shown at a local theater. Sponsored by an auto repair shop, they claimed to be “your alternative to honest and trustworthy service.” Uh, wait a minute… Shouldn’t that be your alternative “for” honest and trustworthy service? As stated, the ad actually suggests you should take your car to them instead of another shop if you want to get ripped off!
The strange thing is, most people in the workplace think they write well. Or, at least adequately. Yet, my experience is exactly the same as that of other managers and many college professors. In general, the writing skill level of students and applicants, as well as current employees, has been on the decline for some time now.
In fact, it has become so bad, many companies have had to resort to remedial writing training for their employees according to an Inc. article by Kaleigh Moore. She writes, “A study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing, indicates that blue chip businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training–annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires.”
In some cases, people with even a master’s degree cannot write a coherent paragraph. Another common no-no, most of their sentences each begin with exactly the same word, over and over. Still others regularly misuse common words such as “their” and “there,” or “it’s” and “its.” There is no apparent rhyme or reason to the types of flaws which appear, or why. While some might like to blame texting or social media for the decline, I’m not so sure. This trend started well before smartphones were the norm, my BFF. LOL!
You may be thinking, “Big deal. I’m not trying to get a job as a writer.” Sure, maybe you’re an engineer, chef, buyer, nurse, accountant, geologist, banker, technician, or whatever. Writing may not be one of your “core” tasks. Plus, maybe you never took any writing courses in high school or college beyond what was required to graduate. Besides, you may not even like to write. So what?
Here’s the problem. Nobody works alone in the solitude of their own job. At a minimum, everyone interacts with a boss. Maybe clients as well. I’ll bet you probably also deal with people in other work areas or outside companies. The one thing which connects us all and enables a workplace to function is language. If you cannot communicate effectively with each other, there’s going to be problems. From there, the situation gets both worse and more personal.
Does Your Writing Inspire Trust and Confidence in You?
You likely have to interact with lots of people outside of your specific area of expertise. The truth is, they don’t have your skill set and you don’t have theirs. But, they do need to be confident that you know what you’re doing. However, what happens to your credibility if they read something from you so poorly written that it suggests otherwise? If you are ineffective at communicating your ideas, needs, plans, etc., how can you expect others to respect or trust you? Think about the sign for the manufacturers’ representative firm mentioned earlier. They couldn’t even manage to get something as simple as their own sign right. Would you trust your sales and financial future to these people, to have them go out and represent your company?
A blog post by the Lexington Writing Firm about poor writing states, “Your good ideas and hard work become clouded. When readers see that you don’t know the difference between ‘affected’ and ‘effected,’ they are less likely to buy into your new idea or respect the work you put into a project.”
Be honest. What does your writing say to others about you?
Shooting Yourself in the Foot
For starters, poor writing skills may cause you to blow an interview and not get the job or big promotion in the first place. In the Inc. article by Kaleigh Moore cited earlier, Moore goes on to say, “Employers are already being proactive about weeding out poor writers from the hiring process. The CollegeBoard data showed that 50 percent of respondents take writing into consideration when hiring professional staff and 80 percent of corporations with employment growth potential assess writing during hiring.”
This is not news to me. For years, for certain positions, I have sometimes used a writing exercise as a part of the job interview process. Nothing fancy. No tricky grammar test. I just hand the candidate a paper which describes a work situation and ask them to write a brief memo in response. That’s it. However, you would be shocked and horrified by some of the replies. (Also be sure to read my post here on Career Lantern regarding skill tests.)
Think I’m being fussy? Check out Kyle Wiens’ Harvard Business Review article I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. According to Mr. Wiens, “Grammar is my litmus test. All applicants say they’re detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.” In his experience, Wiens has found that “…people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”
What if you already have a job? You’re still not off the hook when it comes to bad writing. In a Forbes article entitled How To Improve Your Writing Skills At Work, Etelka Lehoczky writes, “Poor writing skills aren’t just upsetting you; they may be hampering your career.”
Clearly, when it comes to furthering your career, poor writing skills won’t cut it. It is a situation where you are your own worst enemy!
Suppose you know writing is just not your strong suit. However, you do want to reach that “reasonably well” level of writing mentioned earlier. What can you do? You will be happy to know that MANY resources are readily available.
Check out the How To Improve Your Writing Skills At Work article mentioned previously. Lehoczky has assembled a useful collection of excellent and practical ideas, as well as online resources for improving your writing.
A Few More Suggestions
- Start looking at your writing with a critical eye. If you are the least bit unsure about the use of a word, hyphen, etc., check it out. The number on online writing and grammar websites is virtually limitless; many are hosted by colleges.
- Prefer a book? Dig out and dust off your old “writer’s handbook” from college. Don’t have it anymore? Amazon carries countless books, many of which are inexpensive. Two which come to mind are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliott. Depending on the nature of your writing, and especially if it involves research or includes a large number of references, you may want to consider one of the various style manuals available. One such example is the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). Many colleges now require their students to use a particular style manual as the standard for any papers submitted.
- Do you have a trusted colleague, administrative assistant, or mentor who you know is excellent with writing and grammar? Such an individual may be willing to discretely preview your writing and offer suggestions for improvement.
- Be careful about trusting the built-in spelling and grammar checkers in your word processing software. While they have become better over time, I find that they still sometimes offer some pretty goofy and erroneous suggestions. Check out their recommendations before blindly accepting the proposed changes.
- Bookmark and regularly use a website such as dictionary.com. Not just to check spelling, but to make sure you are using the right word and using it correctly. Do you find you tend to use the same words over and over in your writing? Both bad and boring! One click and you go to their thesaurus.com site where you will find suggested alternative words.
Really Need Help?
Perhaps your employer offers writing classes as part of an employee development program. Not only are such classes likely free, taking them shows your employer you are serious about improving your skills. If no such classes are offered, check out a local college. Sure, this might sound like a lot of time and work, but we’re talking about your career here!
Finally, just as with sports or musical instruments, practice makes perfect. Write whenever you can. Volunteer for projects which involve writing. The more you write – and check your work – the better you will get. Who knows? You might even start to enjoy it! Plus, your career will benefit as people start to notice you are one of the better writers!
Agree? Disagree? Share your experience or thoughts?
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