New colleague can be a better writer, with your help

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2009 - 2:43 PM

Imagine this. Your boss walks into your office (or cubicle) and says, "We have a new hire. Smart, talented young person, but the writing skills are weak. I want you to mentor this person. I don't want anything going out from his computer to our clients that makes us look bad. I want no grammatical errors, no punctuation errors. I want the kind of good, precise communication that reflects our professional standards."

How would you help this person?

The first thing you might do is emphasize the importance of good writing and the need to take the time to do it well. You might say something such as, "Remember, the main thing our clients see from us is our writing, so it's important that the quality of our writing reflect the quality of our work."

But that declaration, without supporting resources, wouldn't be very helpful. So next you say, "Here. I've been collecting samples of good writing. These examples represent our most common and our most challenging writing assignments."

And then you point out specific attributes such as goodwill openings and closings, clear purpose statements, carefully structured paragraphs and detailed examples that support the main points.

"Look at the first sentence of every paragraph in this proposal," you add. "You don't have to guess the topic as you begin each paragraph. It's all clearly laid out for you. And the sequence gives you a sense of coherent, logical development."

Then you reach for your other file and say, "Now, here's what not to do. These are poorly written messages and documents. We all make errors, but these examples illustrate basic errors that undermine our credibility."

And then you point out a common misspelling, such as "it's" for "its," as in "This product has proven it's value," or a comma splice (two sentences joined ungrammatically with a comma rather than separated with a period or a semicolon), as in "We can't predict the future, however, we can prepare for it."

But citing these examples may seem like a hit-and-miss approach, so next you give the new hire a copy of your company's style manual.

And then you show this young person where to find the online version of the style manual. While you're at it, you also mention your favorite website for writers, www.wilbers.com.

"After all," you say, "you're not the first person to encounter these issues. It makes sense to learn from the experience of others."

But the last thing you do is the most helpful. You offer to look at this person's writing assignments, and later when you make corrections and suggest changes you do so in a friendly, encouraging manner.

What could be more rewarding than helping a young person succeed?

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