Monday, November 22, 2010

who needs to write?

I did some catching up on my blog reading and tripped across a comment that suggested that most jobs don't require any ability to write well (it was buried somewhere in the NYTimes freakonomics blog archives, if you're curious). It went unchallenged and the conversation continued, but it made me wonder - for your average job that requires a college degree, how much writing is expected?

Most of my job experience has been either in the environmental consulting business or in academia, and I've held several somewhat overlapping roles in both. In all cases, I needed to be able to write to a certain standard, whether that was specifications that were clear and didn't have contradictory information, reports that didn't make the company look incompetent, or powerpoint slides that were easily understandable. Oh yeah, and that 100-page thesis.

If my writing had been terrible or merely bad enough to be annoying to fix, I probably would have gotten jobs similar to what I ended up with (although not my first job in consulting - that came with a writing test because they'd been burned by functionally illiterate scientists before), and I probably would have gotten into grad school somewhere. But I would have been one the first people let go (if you can write fast and well, you become indispensable to lots of people) when times got rough, and I wouldn't have moved into a management position at a relatively young age.

Maybe my experience is atypical. So how much writing do you need to do for your job? Is writing "well" (however it's defined) important?


Lockwood said...

I can't speak for other professions, but in science teaching and science education ("teaching teachers to teach science") particularly, it's critical both to performance and to one's professional demeanor. Jobs since my Master's have had writing as a central component. And I think you bring up an important point: when things get tight, it will be the less proficient communicators that get axed first; when times are good better communicators get promoted first. Writing proficiency does not necessarily equal total communication proficiency, but I'd bet they're very strongly correlated.

It's difficult for me to take someone seriously if they haven't even mastered their native language.

In short, especially in these days of texting and sloppy writing, being able to write clearly and correctly when the situation calls for it is profoundly important. Too many people, even college grads, can't.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Good writing is critical for me in my postdoc. I do a lot more of it than I thought I would be doing at this point. I always knew that the higher you got in your career, the more time you spend writing, but it happened faster than I expected.

Rock Head said...

I went to a private school in 11th grade where grammar and composition were taught with a focus that bordered on being fanatical. I have been thankful ever since.

In my previous life in the consulting business, I became one of my company's chief reviewers of reports because writing clearly and concisely was one of my skills. I found that some reports, particularly those written with the assistance of lawyers, were laden with such excessive verbiage that they were incoherent to the point of being unreadable.

I am a firm believer that sloppy writing and sloppy thinking go hand in hand.