So Much Time, So Much Money—Such Unsatisfactory Results
Written by: Yellowlees Douglas
Why Higher Education Fails to Prepare Students for Workplace Writing
Yellowlees Douglas, author of The Reader's Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (2015), explores how the teaching of writing is leaving some people ill-prepared for the workplace.
The US is currently home to a peculiar paradox.
In every survey and interview, employers emphasize the importance of strong writing skills, whilst bemoaning the abilities of their employees to write even comprehensible emails. Over a decade ago, studies reported American companies spent an average of $3.1 billion annually—strictly on remedial writing instruction, presumably addressing those pesky its/it’s, there/their/they’re distinctions, as well as the less arcane rules of standard English grammar and punctuation. On the other hand, higher education responds by infusing more coaching and compulsory courses on writing to bolster graduates’ facility with everything from emails to proposals. However, the gap between employers’ expectations and the quality of employees’ writing remains stubbornly present. The reason isn’t that writing is some inborn talent, unteachable in a classroom. The reason is that even the best-designed writing programmes lack an established knowledgebase for teaching writing.
Some methods advocate practice with feedback that urges writers to consider their readers’ point of view. (Easier said than done). Others borrow heavily from snippets of Aristotle’s rhetoric for persuading audience of illiterate Athenians via speech. Still others merely seek to paper over the cracks, ensuring graduates at least know a full stop from a comma. Fortunately, we can close this tantalizing gap between the effort dedicated to teaching writing and its apparent lack of results. We can demonstrably improve students’ and employees’ writing in a matter of weeks—by leveraging decades of data into the reading brain and its implications for writers everywhere, an approach I explore extensively in my forthcoming book, The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.
“When you tell students to avoid ‘unnecessary words,’ a gem mentioned by nearly every book on writing, your students can follow that advice only if they know how to spot unnecessary words.”
Anyone teaching writing to even the brightest MBAs faces three significant challenges. First, most students view writing instruction and evaluation as hopelessly subjective—akin to teasing out the meaning in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and about as useful to their careers. Second, writing instruction itself falls back on exhortations about writing only useful to someone who already writes well. When you tell students to avoid ‘unnecessary words,’ a gem mentioned by nearly every book on writing, your students can follow that advice only if they know how to spot unnecessary words. In reality, few of us knowingly use words we believe add nothing to our writing. And, finally, MBA programs lean heavily toward quantitative skills and methodologies, making a writing course seem to be the ‘soft,’ hopelessly subjective outlier amongst disciplines driven by reams of empirical data.
The solution is surprisingly simple, data-driven, and, most satisfyingly for schools of business, easily quantifiable in both teaching methodology and in evaluating results. Use models of the readers’ brain to inform the teaching and practice of writing. This approach encompasses everything from the havoc passive construction wreaks on reading speed and comprehension to recognising species of redundancy in English in all their diverse splendour. The data, drawn from cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, linguistics, neurology, and neuroscience, have undeniable implications for determining, say, which words your readers will understand rapidly and easily—and which will send readers scurrying backward to determine what you meant.
You can see this approach at work on a single example, drawn from the mostly impenetrable thickets of policy documents. In Rhode Island’s 2009 HMO policy manual for subscribers, readers confronted this gem: In the event a third party, including your employer/agent, is or may be responsible for causing an illness or injury for which we provided any benefit or made any payment to you, we shall succeed to your right of recovery against such responsible party. If you have any inkling of what this sentence bodes for your coverage, congratulations. The rest of us, however, need a bit more clarity to even begin to comprehend what the policy covers.
Since passive construction in sentences obscures who did what to whom, ask your readers if the sentence makes sense if you insert by zombies near the verb. In the event a third party, including your employer/agent, is or may be responsible for causing an illness or injury by zombies… Okay, this first clause relies on passive construction. If you make the grammatical subject into an actor—someone else— and use an action verb—caused—you create a sentence with actor-action-outcome, nicely hewing to our innate tendency to see causation everywhere, including in sentences. If someone else caused your illness or injury, we can collect any claims we pay on your behalf from that person. Now even a flustered and impatient subscriber can understand that sentence.
You can learn everything you never knew about your readers’ brain and its implications for your writing in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.