Write. Write. And Rewrite.

I used to teach college English and a common complaint was that students can’t write.  It’s easy to blame texting or emails or watching too much TV, but that’s really not it.  The fact is, this has been an issue for as long as anyone has been keeping track.

When I was in graduate school I wrote a paper about writing at a college level.  The one consistent factor – whether it was 1880 or 1980 or today – is that college professors complain that students don’t know how to write.

I think the problem doesn’t lie with students but the way we teach writing, or don’t teach it.  In secondary school, we focus a lot on grammar.  Granted grammar is important, but grammar alone doesn’t teach you to write.  It’s like teaching someone to run a table saw and then expecting them to be able to build a house.  You need more than grammar to write well.  In fact, there is some literature that suggests writers who stop and start their writing to pick at grammar tend to be poor writers.

Grammar is a lot easier to grade than writing.  It’s easy to grade someone on whether or not they can identify a noun, but it’s a bit more complicated to grade on things like style and tone and proper use of transitions.  While I was teaching college, we had a meeting with instructors from across several disciplines.  One exercise we did was to have everyone grade the same student paper.  The grades for that same paper ranged from an A to a D.

Not only is grading papers harder, but it takes a LOT of time if the instructor gives meaningful comments.  I also found that many students view comments and critiques of their writing as an attack on their person, in ways that marking a problem as incorrect on an algebra test isn’t.

So how do we teach people to write?  Back in the 1800s, it was believed that all you had to do to learn to write was to Latin.  The only problem is Latin isn’t English.  Today’s methodology doesn’t seem to be working that much better gauging from some of the business emails I’ve read lately.  Most colleges require woefully few papers, so students aren’t getting the practice and instruction they need to get better at crafting clear writing.

Here’s how you learn to write.  You write. And then you rewrite.  Granted you may not learn to write like Shakespeare or Jane Austin or Hemingway or (fill in the name of your favorite author), but you can learn to construct clear and understandable communications.

Stop the Madness of Corporate Gobbledy Gook

We’ve all been victims of bad corporate communications.  If you’ve received an email from the CEO, a letter from department head on the company intranet, read a press release or any more of a dozen corporate communications avenues, you’ve been hit by the gobbledy gook that passes for communications.

Chances are you’ve had a “paradigm shift” that came from “sharing best practices” that were “necessary to fully utilize our customer interface” to “take advantage of our competitive advantage.”

PR Daily gives a rundown of some actual sentences in press releases and translates, I mean, rewrites them into real language that people can understand.

Here are five ways we can stop the madness:

  1. Stop writing things by committee.  I know everyone wants to give their opinion, especially if it’s an important corporate communication like an annual report or layoff notice.  But that doesn’t mean everyone gets to rewrite it.
  2. Stop covering up.  Oftentimes these types of abominations come from trying to cover up that you don’t really have anything to say or trying to make it sound like you’re making progress when you really aren’t.
  3. Stop trying to sound important.  A strange thing happens when we start writing corporate communications: we lose our minds. We start spewing fancy words that don’t mean anything and string them together like a tangled ball of Christmas lights, which we throw at our reader and expect them to be delighted to spend time untangling.
  4. Stop going around the barn to get to the house. The best communications are concise and to the point.  Get to the point and move on.  People will appreciate your respect for their time not spend digging through your email to figure out what the point is.
  5. Stop ignoring your communications folks.  Corporate communications professionals are paid to make executives sound good.  Stop beating them down so they acquiesce to jargon.  Trust them when they advise you to keep it simple and straightforward.

I can’t resist ending with one of the best examples, ever. At the top of the Hall of Shame is this horribly convoluted email from Microsoft informing employees that thousands are about to be laid off (anyway, I think that’s what it’s about), with delightful commentary by New Yorker Magazine.  This is corporate speak at its pinnacle.