Monthly ArchiveNovember 2008

How Effective Is the Scientific & Technical Writing In Your Organization?

Do you have any of these concerns about your scientific and technical writing?
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Writing That’s Short, Sweet Linked to Jobs, Promotions

By John Eckberg, Cincinnati Enquirer

The ability to write well is increasingly becoming an express ticket to a decent job.

A 2004 report from a questionnaire to 120 human-resources employees at corporations that employ 8 million workers concludes that workplace writing is a “threshold” skill for hiring and promoting salaried employees.

That means if you can’t write with aplomb, even verve, you won’t get past the threshold of the front door and certainly won’t make it to the corner office.

Produced in conjunction with 120 human resources representatives of companies in the Business Roundtable, which includes giants such as Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Sara Lee and Western & Southern Financial Group, the study found that writing ability is woefully lacking in corporate America.

Leaders believed that clear writing meant clear thinking and that an employee who can write well is an employee who is ready to be promoted.

“The strength of corporate complaints about the writing skills of college graduates was surprisingly powerful,” the report concluded.

Keep in mind that this imperative for better writing is coming from the corner of commerce that brought us phrases such as “paradigm shift,” “results-driven,” “robust networks,” “seamless integration” and “top-line growth.”

The human resources report also found that:

Half the companies surveyed almost always make writing a consideration before any promotion occurs.

The private-sector cost for providing writing training is projected at $3.1 billion during 2005. That’s about $2,500 to $3,500 per worker.

E-mail has replaced the one-page interoffice memo as the most common form of written communication.

One-third of employees do not have decent writing skills.

None of this surprises Thomas Clark, a professor at the Williams College of Business at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Clark teaches a communications class – a one-day, one-page memo seminar – for Procter & Gamble interns and new employees.

After 23 years and more than 1,000 workshops, Clark says that his message has not changed much: Clear writing means brevity. Get to who, what, why and when right away.

One trend that has been sweeping through the workplace, he said, is the increasing prominence of e-mail and voice mail.

“Highly effective e-mail and highly effective voice mail – if you practice it every day, it will be reflected in your presentations and in your reports,” Clark said.

Job-hunters should not rely on e-mail, though, particularly for thank-you notes.

“We recently had a student beat out another from another university for an internship at a top company in town,” Clark said. “She wrote a four-paragraph thank-you letter rather than a one-paragraph e-mail like the other candidate.

“The letter she got back stated that it was clear that she was more interested in the position than the competition.”

Does clear writing really matter? After all, unclear communication works, too.

Clark has no doubt: “Crisp, everyday communication is a competitive advantage.”

Business, B-Schools Fight Bad Writing


The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 1:42 PM

CHICAGO — Like a dark and stormy night, bad writing has long shadowed the business world _ from bureaucratese to mangled memos to the cliche-thick murk of corporatespeak.

But in an era of nonstop e-mail and instant and text messaging, written communication skills within companies may be getting even worse as quality is compromised by the perceived need for speed. Wary of the trend, not just businesses but business schools across the country are working harder to eschew obfuscation. Some have added or expanded writing programs in recent years; others use corporations’ faux pas as case studies in hopes their students will learn to avoid them.

“It happens every day that businesses send bad messages,” said Jim O’Rourke, a management professor at Notre Dame and director of the university’s Fanning Center for Business Communication. “They send messages they don’t intend.”

Sometimes the message is just a case of execrable writing.

Dianna Booher, a communication training consultant for Fortune 500 clients, submits the following example from a company manager: “It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps.”

Translation: I’m the training director.

In the words of former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, who led a campaign in the 1990s requiring “plain English” in corporate and mutual-fund prospectuses: “The prose trips off the tongue like peanut butter.”

But it’s no longer just the inability to string clear, coherent thoughts together that poses the biggest risk. Rather, it may be clicking the “Send” button too hastily.

Business students got a prime example this year when RadioShack told about 400 workers by e-mail that they were being laid off immediately. “The work force reduction notification is currently in progress,” the company told employees at its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, in August. “Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.”

An even more memorable case of bad corporate communication, involving an infamous memo sent by Cerner Corp. CEO Neal Patterson in 2001, is still providing learning material five years later.

Upset that the company’s parking lot was less than full by 8 a.m. and emptied out around 5, Patterson sent out an angry e-mail berating employees for laziness and promising to fire managers in two weeks if they didn’t shape up. He shut down the employee gym and said “hell will freeze over” before he would allow more benefits.

The e-mail was leaked and posted on the Internet, prompting the company’s stock to plunge 22 percent in three days, although it recovered strongly and Patterson remains at the helm of the medical software designer today.

“Frequently e-mails are fired off with never a second thought _ no proofreading,” said O’Rourke. “And certainly the grammar of instant messaging and text messaging has intruded as well.”

The Notre Dame center focuses on teaching students to say what they need to say in fewer words, write at an appropriate conversational level, and organize it in a way that makes sense for the reader. It offers courses in management writing for MBA candidates and business writing for undergraduates.

“They have to focus on the needs of the reader,” O’Rourke said. “Otherwise, she won’t pay attention, she won’t do what you want, she won’t retain what you said.”

Plenty of experts share the belief that IM creates or at least contributes to bad writing.

Tom Clark, a Xavier University business professor who also teaches writing skills at Procter & Gamble Co., says short communication is becoming the norm as more people derive their habits from instant-response communications media. That may be good news for those who abhor reading long documents but it’s not so great for quality writing reflective of long-term thinking, he observes.

“Young people are wrapped up in the speed with which they communicate rather than seeing writing as a reflection of their best selves,” he said.

Paula Hill-Strasser, an adjunct business professor at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, says even the brightest students seem to struggle more with writing than they used to. She suspects the lapses _ such as constant use of “they” as a pronoun and writing paragraphs that run three-quarters of a page _ are linked to young people’s increased multi-tasking and electronic distractions.

“For whatever reason, we are finding the business writing skill-set to be missing,” she said.

Trying to address the shortfall, SMU requires business students to write more company profiles and case studies than before.

But some experts say IM has gotten a bad rap in the office and defend it as a valuable business communications tool.

“The problem isn’t due to IM,” said Beth Hewett, a consultant on online and traditional writing programs. “Instead, I think that laziness and lack of understanding of formal business conventions are more responsible.”

Business students at Miami (Ohio) University’s Farmer School of Business work on rhetoric and are reminded to tailor their writing style to the purpose. They are told that conciseness and understanding one’s audience are more important than ever.

“People have been complaining about the quality of student writing since Plato,” said Kate Ronald, an English professor who runs the school’s Howe Writing Initiative. “But I think businesses are paying more attention to it. Businesses today are doing so much more writing, and doing it so much more publicly _ because so much of the discourse is discussed on the screen rather than on paper.”

Some companies, Procter & Gamble notably among them, are working to correct bad writing habits with their own in-house writing courses.

But there still isn’t much of a market overall for business writing classes, according to Peter Handal, CEO of Dale Carnegie Training.

“I think that would suggest that people are just so happy to get the communications going that they aren’t spending the time on how to communicate,” he said.


NO  TIME  TO  THINK:  Reflections  on  Information  Technology   and  Contemplative  Scholarship   

By David M. Levy

This  paper  argues  that  the  accelerating  pace  of  life  is  reducing  the  time  for  thoughtful  reflection,  and  in  particular  for  contemplative  scholarship,  within  the  academy.  It  notes  that  the  loss  of  time  to  think  is  occurring  at  exactly  the  moment  when  scholars,  educators,  and  students  have  gained  access  to  digital  tools  of  great  value  to  scholarship.  It  goes  on  to  explore  how  and  why  both  of  these  facts  might  be  true,  what  it  says  about  the  nature  of  scholarship,  and  what  might  be  done  to  address  this  state  of  affairs.  

Download the entire article: No Time To Think, by David Levy