He was the first person in his family to attend college. His mother had sacrificed to get him there, had wanted a better life for him than hers, and now, on his first day of work he was excited. And scared.
He was proud to have been hired by a prestigious company, and he knew he had the intelligence and determination to succeed. But he also knew his language skills weren't what they should be. It didn't help that he was the only person of his ethnic background in his entire department. Failure would extend beyond personal humiliation to a broader guilt over having let down his community.
He couldn't help thinking that "make us proud," as his mother had told him, meant more than do well; it also meant achieving some sort of collective validation through exceptional performance. He had to be better than good.
So the last thing he wanted to do was misplace a comma or use the wrong word. His new colleagues seemed friendly and welcoming, but he didn't want to reinforce any unspoken stereotypes. No one had ever used the words "inferior" and "ignorant" to his face, but the recent rise of uncivil discourse had made him question his assumptions about his country's core values. He sensed that a word like "arrogant" was code for "uppity." Somehow, he had to operate between "inferior" and "arrogant." Was the past truly past?
His first assignment was to write a report summarizing the results of a survey on customer satisfaction. One point he thought especially noteworthy was that customers didn't like being asked "The last name?" or "The birthdate?" They preferred "Your last name?" and "Your birthdate?" Obvious enough. People like being treated like people.
Before drafting his report, he made an outline. Tweeting and texting were effortless for him, but he knew that longer documents required organization, coherence and logical development. As he drafted, he made certain that the last sentence of his introduction provided an overview of the report's major components and that his conclusion repeated the survey's key findings. To check his organization, he didn't read his draft. He read the first sentence of each paragraph to see if his topics flowed in logical order and if his transitions were apparent.
For proofreading he did what professional proofreaders do. He made multiple passes through his document, first looking for big-picture errors such as inconsistency in justification, spacing after periods and formatting of headings, and last looking for little-picture errors such as incorrect comma placement, missing apostrophes and nonparallel structure. As a final check, he dealt with his weakness: his imperfect command of grammar, punctuation and word choice. He googled "writing error checklist" and ran his eye down a list of 75 common errors. Perfect.
Later that day his manager said, "It's good to know I can trust you to produce clean copy. Here's your next assignment."
Back in his cubicle, he sat down to write. His fingers trembled as he touched his keyboard. "Mama," he whispered, "I'm gonna make you proud."
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.