The lost art of communicating

This last week, I found myself having to evaluate entries for a fellowship in publishing.  There were five of them from students in a prestigious master’s program at a well known university.  Sadly, I was shocked not only at the lack of creativity exhibited in these entries but (more importantly) by the level of the writing.

Over the last several years, I have noticed that even young people who have PhD degrees have writing skills that are poor and ineffective.  It seems that communicating clearly and effectively has become a lost art.

It is one thing to write “pretty” sentences in a novel, for example, but I am discovering today that good technical business writing is extremely hard to find.  We need to do better; and the people I am talking about are all intelligent.

I wonder why this is happening.  One of my dear publishing friends has suggested it’s due to the internet, and I suspect that has something to do with it, of course.

But I think there is something else — a lack of focus on the actual process of communicating by the written word.  Young people especially, I think, have to be aware of what they are doing in this regard and how they are doing it.  With so much competition for jobs today, their writing skills are going to become an increasingly important factor in the kind of job and maybe ultimate career they can have.

I would love to hear what you think about all of this — whether you have noticed what I have, why it is happening increasingly now, and what can be done about it.

22 Responses to The lost art of communicating

  1. Silver James says:

    YES! My daughter just finished her master’s thesis last fall (History/Museum Studies). She was not a happy camper with all the rewrites I put her through but after her successful defense and “with honors” score, she thanked me after graduation. Hers was one of only two chosen for publication university wide. This fall, I’ll make my son-in-law jump through the same hoops. The DD asked me to glance over several of her friends’ work simply to check for typos, spelling and verb usage. To say I was dismayed by the quality is an understatement. I promise not to get on my soapbox about the state of education in the US but I fear too many teachers and educational systems are doing a real disservice to our kids. Writing is no longer emphasized in classes, unfortunately, and without the basics to draw on, by the time kids are in college, they’re too far behind the curve to catch up.

  2. Could it be differences in style between academic writing vs. technical business writing? They do tend to be very different.

    • They both require a grasp of basic grammar, though. I’m in a Masters program right now, and I’ve noticed that a lot of people–educated adults–simply don’t know how to write correct sentences, form structured paragraphs, and communicate ideas clearly, let alone more complicated things like citing others’ works correctly. I’ve also been on numerous hiring committees in the past and seen that it doesn’t always improve after college. Writing just isn’t taught the same way anymore, and when it is, it’s often only required as an introductory course and nobody checks to ensure that students will be able to transfer any skills they learn there to anything beyond the class.

    • Leif Fearn says:

      No, they aren’t different. Embedded in both is good writing skills — thinking and writing in sentences, organization, focus, and the art of brevity. We don’t teach any of that in any grade, K-16. Understand, we do teach about sentences, but no one teaches how to think and write in sentences. The difference is everything. And we never have taught that stuff. Students two, three,and five generations ago didn’t write better than students today; we just want to believe they did because most of us were them.

      Leif Fearn

  3. I do marketing and administrative work for a group of restaurants and I can’t tell you how many resumes I receive for open job positions that are full of blatant misspellings and grammatical errors (most of which could be easily fixed by running a simple spellcheck). I toss those resumes out immediately. It’s so frustrating!

  4. Chelle818 says:

    Text messaging and e-mail are to writing skills as the ice-age was to the dinosaurs. I work as an office manager for a small CPA firm and cannot believe some of the resumes and e-mails I receive in response to job postings. Grammar and spelling mistakes are the norm. Every now and again there is a complete lack of punctuation. How do people expect to get hired if they can’t even bother to proof-read their own resume?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I was appalled when my 1st grade son brought home a completed writing assignment, mounted on bright construction paper with hand-drawn illustrations, full of misspellings and lacking even the most basic punctuation. I understand that first graders are taking their very first tentative steps into writing and we want to encourage the creative process. However, when I asked him about the errors he replied, “Oh, Miss XXX told us that the spelling didn’t matter as long as we had good ideas.” Not only did this woman set the standard frightfully low for that particular class but her comments created a horrible precedent for future years as well. Although the vast majority of teachers would never condone such a ridiculous way of thinking and I do take comfort in the fact that this particular instructor didn’t return to our school the following year, what scares me most is that there might be similar-minded instructors out there.

  6. Kaitlyne says:

    In my teaching/tutoring experience, one of the biggest faults I find is that students aren’t actually being taught to write. I’ve worked with numerous college students (many training to be teachers themselves) who didn’t grasp the concepts of things like paragraphs and basic grammar, much less structure, supporting ideas, and transition sentences.

    I’m not sure how much No Child Left Behind has had to do with things, though it’s the go to in the education world for the numerous problems. When you consider the low percentages of people graduating high school on grade-level for subjects like reading, it’s not so surprising.

    I was very lucky in that I was in a gifted/college prep program with teachers who emphasized writing skills. Most of the students I’ve worked with, however, were never so lucky.

    Just a little anecdote to demonstrate some of the problems with the current system: My sophomore English teacher (yes, in the gifted/prep program) once told us that he didn’t like to teach grammar and we didn’t like to learn it, but it was required for the course. His solution was to not teach grammar, but to give us a handout at the beginning of every class for six weeks with a few questions on it that we then graded.

    Most of us could answer the questions intuitively, but we never once discussed rules or why the answers were what they were. And all in all, my teachers were a thousand times better than a lot I’ve seen out there.

    • Leif Fearn says:

      For as long as the grammar we teach is what we all remember, and covet, I’d just as soon no one teach grammar. Most of us mistake grammar for the ability to pick predicate nominatives out of a sentence, and that is what we teach when we think we are teaching grammar. Grammar instruction is what happened in the piece in JOURNAL OF BASIC WRITING, Volume 26, Spring 2007, pp. 63-87, “When is a verb?” The rest is vacuous.

      Leif Fearn

  7. jseliger says:

    Over the last several years, I have noticed that even young people who have PhD degrees have writing skills that are poor and ineffective.

    Grad programs don’t select for writing skill; if anything, they might do the opposite, as discussed in Lingua Franca’s Is Bad Writing Necessary?: George Orwell, Theodor Adorno, and the Politics of Literature and in Steven Berlin Johnson’s reminiscences of undergrad.

    As to “what can be done?”, my guess is “nothing,” at least from the outside. Outsiders can’t really affect what grad programs value, and the intellectual winds still favor windy nonsense over clarity.

  8. Julie Dietz says:

    I’ve been teaching at the college level for 20 years now, and the level of writing skills students have when they come to college is much lower than it was even 10 years ago. I find myself teaching basic writing mechanics along with the discipline specific content I’m supposed to be teaching.

    I have students entering my program who have never written more than a 3-5 page paper. Who don’t know they have incomplete sentences. Who don’t know what a proper noun is, let alone that it needs to be capitalized. [yes, I know. I just used sentence fragments.]

    Worse, they don’t seem to think that it really matters.

    I just spent the weekend grading a series of small assignments. Approximately 20% of my students consistently did not capitalize the letter “I.” I have one student who just can’t believe that her writing skills are really a problem, even though I can’t even figure out what she’s trying to say half the time. Her writing mechanics are so poor that I can’t tell if she is incapable of processing information and forming coherent thoughts, or if she is merely unable to write with any clarity.

    • Leif Fearn says:

      The best of us can write what most times is assigned for 12-15 pages, but in 3-5 instead. If we taught writing, not the sillies that characterize the wall charts and fast-food metaphors we find in near every classroom, and our students wrote 1-2 page pieces that reflected what we teach, ,at least once per week, we’d have better writers.

      Leif Fearn

      • Clix says:

        At six classes of thirty students, that’s three hundred-ish pages of student writing to review per week. And that’s in addition to any study of drama or poetry or public speaking or anything else.

        If you really think that’s humanly possible, I’d be very entertained to hear an explanation of how it would work. (Without a Time-Turner! *g*)

  9. Oh, wow. Where to start? I’ve taught many a university Composition and Business Writing course. I always emphasize to students that, while their grade in the current class is important, the skills they will (or will not) try to gain during our time together are keys to their professional futures.

    Clear, concise and effective communication is expected in just about every field these days. If the Internet is at least partially to blame for a dearth of these skills among the “higher educated,” then that’s just ironic. After all, the Internet may be the main reason our global culture becomes more text-based every day, necessitating the need for communicators who can really and truly write.

    • Leif Fearn says:

      Bingo! Clear, concise, so tight it makes readers’ hair hurt. So why do we insist on assigning 8-10 pages when any topic they choose can be handled properly in 3-5, if not 2-3?

      Leif Fearn

  10. Kaitlyne says:

    I honestly think the internet has less to do with it than teachers being pushed to get kids through classes, curricula that focuses on teaching to the test rather than teaching skills the kids need, and an emphasis on encouraging self-esteem and praising children for mediocre work rather than pushing them to excel.

    Text messaging and email might contribute to a degree, but if you think of it, kids are doing more actual writing in their free time than they ever have.

    • Leif Fearn says:

      Yes, students write more than ever before, , but little or no better. The missing mediator is instruction about the right stuff. There are many very good teachers out there teaching the wrong stuff brilliantly. Shame on their teacher-school professors, their professional organizations, and the publishers that put crap into their mailboxes, all of whom should know better, but don’t because most of the people to whom teachers have to listen and whom they have to read don’t write real stuff for real audiences that do not HAVE to read it for a grade or to satisfy a building principal or district literacy coach.

      Leif Fearn

  11. Catherine Whitney says:

    As tempting as it is to blame the Internet, the answer is more old fashioned–teachers teaching and parents encouraging kids to read, read, read and write, write, write.

    • Leif Fearn says:

      The only flaw in your answer is that what we see IS old-fashioned. It didn’t teach 27 of the 30 in most rooms to write well. We remember what we got as terrific because we were among the 3-4 who got it. The important question is about the other 27 kiddoes. And I want to see the evidence that read-read-read is associated with good writing — not from the good writers who read-read-read, so we make the correlation; but from the poor writers, as well,who also read-read-read. The connection goes one way but not necessarily the other. Our good writers are also good readers, but our good readers are not necessarily good writers. Finally, there is evidence that students today write more than any students before them, through the day and through the curriculum (see reports from NAEP-Writing). Those reports also show that those students who write more than ever before do not write appreciably better (a few points on a 100-point scale doesn’t reach the level of “appreciably”). People who write a lot do not become better writers unless they write well when they write a lot, and better every time as the result of effective instruction. Practice does not make perfect. Ask any musician or athlete. Only perfect practice makes perfect. The missing link is instruction on the right stuff.

      Leif Fearn

  12. ryan field says:

    Communication evolves and changes constantly. Language evolves and changes. And we’ve been on the edge of these changes with the advent of the digital age.

    Steve Jobs fought to keep “Think Different” against all advice it was incorrect. No one cared. In other words, what we are seeing now is communication evolving. It’s actually quite normal. We don’t speak or write like anyone did in the eighteenth century.

  13. Megan B. says:

    I am so grateful that I had some good English teachers in school. I’m tempted to send them all fruit baskets with notes of thanks.

    Everything else I was going to say has been said already, so I won’t rehash it.

  14. Zach says:

    I agree mother, that’s why I am taking a business communications class!!!

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