“Aren’t they awful? Aren’t they terrible? Young people just aren’t being taught to write.”
Almost without exception, that’s the first thing I hear from people when I tell them what I do for a living. Harvard President Charles William Eliot expressed the same concern:
“Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing, ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation, and almost entire want of familiarity with English literature are far from rare.”
Except Eliot said those words in 1871.
Maybe he was right, and maybe all of the people who share their dismay with me are right — maybe younger writers aren’t being educated as well as older writers were — but the perception that our writing skills are in decline is nothing new.
Whatever the trend, how we respond is what really matters. The real question is, what can we do to help all writers, young and old, attain a higher level of proficiency?
Here’s a practical approach to helping writers improve their skills:
1. Set a good example. Model good writing. Be the person who raises, not lowers, the standards in your organization.
2. Know your stuff. You can’t teach the principles of good writing and the rules of language if you don’t know them yourself.
3. Use a style manual. Look; don’t guess. No one has perfect command of the complexities of English grammar. Whether it’s William Sabin’s “The Gregg Reference Manual” or Charles Brusaw’s “The Business Writer’s Handbook,” consult a reliable reference book. (For other recommendations, google “Wilbers resources.”)
4. Provide resources. Offer the training and resources writers need to meet your expectations. Introduce them to your favorite style manual and tell them what you like about it. Share links to your favorite online resources.
5. Be positive. Be a good coach. Share examples of good writing, pointing out their strengths.
6. Offer a specific assessment. Go beyond generalities. Identify specific areas of concern such as (1) clarity and organization, (2) support and relevant detail, (3) accuracy and correctness (in content and language, as well as proofreading) and (4) productivity and workflow (ability to meet deadlines). With an exceptionally weak writer, consider working in one area at a time.
7. Encourage a systematic approach. Encourage writers to keep track of their habitual errors. Link them to a checklist of 75 common errors by googling “Wilbers errors.”
8. Teach as well as correct. Empower your writers. Don’t serve as permanent copy editor. Halfway through making comments on a document, ask the author to note the changes you’ve made so far and finish revising the document in like fashion. Discuss the errors in a document you’ve highlighted on your computer screen, and then ask the author to proofread their copy of the document and resubmit it to you with those errors corrected.
9. Urge writers to read. Talk about good books you’re reading. Suggest authors whose style you admire (such as Lewis Thomas for technical writers). Recommend books on topics you think will interest the people you’re coaching.
In other words, whether or not the sky is really falling, do what you can to make things better.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.