Do Writing Skills Still Matter?

A new crop of business school graduates will enter the marketplace this summer, and many have valuable skills.

Data analysis. Deep theoretical grounding. Experience with case study models. A fresh, textbook understanding of marketing, advertising, finance and operations.

If you own a business or work in the business world, however, you won’t be surprised to learn your peers have complained to colleges about the caliber of graduates’ writing skills. This is true at both the bachelor and master levels.

The complaints are many and varied.

MBA grads often write as if they’re being paid by the word, rather than for the clarity and results their writing should produce. They use complicated structures and incomprehensible phrases, a practice they must unlearn when they hit the real world. They choose words like edifice, instead of building, according to the business communication programs director at Rutgers Business School. (WSJ)

The practical writing skills valued in the real world aren't evident, but employer feedback has motivated some schools to take action.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania plans to double its communication coursework to 12 classes starting in 2012. Last fall, first-year students competed in a mandatory writing competition, creating short pieces in response to prompts provided by the school. This approach will become a component in the new curriculum. (WSJ)

Most teachers at the high school, college and graduate level assign topics, require a specific number of words per assignment, and encourage students to explore themes in novels and exercise creative writing skills. Many are unconcerned by stodgy issues like spelling and grammar, because according to one college instructor, “It hampers student creativity.”

So, out of curiosity, when was the last time a client or boss asked you to write with unhampered creativity about any old topic you might choose? The answer is never. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what students are being taught to expect, do and value.

One educator remarked that at least students are texting, which means they're writing. Really? In the real world, texting is as close to actual writing as video war games are to combat.

Here's a news flash: Simulation isn’t reality, and unrelated simulation is worthless.

Texting and email shorthand simply add more teetering layers to a shaky structure. Students are adept at communicating in code, but lack the skill to write clearly and succinctly in a relentless, competitive business environment.

Many highly respected schools, such as the University of Rochester Simon Graduate School of Business, complicate matters by offering business writing classes as pass-fail. Will that help?

When words conflict with actions, people pay attention to the actions.

It's meaningless, therefore, for educators to say "business writing skills matter." Pass-fail classes make it clear schools aren't willing to establish meaningful standards, evaluate students based on those standards, assign a real grade, and ding the GPAs of those who can't perform.

Do business writing skills still matter? For me, of course, the answer is yes. As business owners and hiring decision-makers, it's up to you to decide if the same is true for you.

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WSJ: Students Struggle for Words

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