employees, and you’ll run smack against a paradox that confronts you at
every turn. Throughout higher education, universities and colleges have
hunkered down to the task of ensuring their graduates write well enough
to pass muster in a competitive job market.
ensure students take compulsory writing courses or have assignments
double-graded by an instructor and a writing coach. At the same time,
open any study on the writing skills of graduates entering the work
force, and you’ll discover organizations still complaining about the
sub-par writing skills of their new hires.
The Problem Money Can’t Fix
We generally believe programs and curricula fail for lack of funding. Throw
enough money at a problem, and you can at least diminish its size or
scope. However, when businesses assess the skills of recent graduates,
the largest gap looms between the writing skills employers need in new
hires and the writing skills their new hires actually bring to the job.
That dismal finding from a 2011 report by the National Association of
Colleges and Employers coincides with other assessments of graduates’
writing skills. A 2011 survey of accounting firms found that employers
wanted — but failed to find — skills as basic as organized sentences and
paragraphs. In one 2012 study, researchers calculated that a
hypothetical company with 1,000 employees would lose $1.5M annually from
poorly written emails alone:
What gives? The problem lies not in the requirements but in the approach
to teaching writing. Uniquely, writing as a discipline lacks a core set
of principles, shared understandings, or methodology. Instead, writing
courses vary wildly in content and methodology. Few research faculty or
even full-time faculty teach them. Instead, teaching writing falls
mainly to underpaid, part-time adjunct faculty and graduate students,
most of whom received degrees in fields ranging from history to
sociology. At least that graduate student who taught your Intro to
Calculus course actually studied math and drew off well-established
methods for solving problems. That exhausted adjunct teaching your
writing course just hopes practice and perhaps imitating good writers
will improve your writing.
others? Why do we finish reading some documents and find ourselves
unable to recall their contents, only minutes later? The answer lies in
your reader’s brain. Our brains process writing in highly predictable
ways, based on some of the same mechanisms that we use to perceive the
world around us. Moreover, psychologists, linguists, and neuroscientists
have studied these mechanisms for over sixty years. We can improve our
writing if we practice writing, using the principles these scientists
articulated, including causation, prediction, and memory.
Some Science-based Takeaways for Writing
- In studies of readers’ brains, readers demonstrate poor recall of
passively constructed sentences. With passive construction, the outcome
of an action acts as the grammatical subject, and the actor is often
merely implied. In fact, readers not only read these sentences more
slowly than they do active sentences, but they also agree to nonsense
propositions in passive sentences nearly one-third of the time.
- Gaps between sentences or lack of continuity accounts for the greatest slow-downs in reading speeds and fall-offs in readers’ comprehension.
- We even “hear” words on the page during silent reading and perceive writers as accomplished or clumsy, based on how writers manage cadence via sentence structure. In studies of subjects reading silently, researchers were floored to discover that blood flow increased to Broca’s area, a part of the brain previously believed to be active only in understanding and forming spoken words.