Why College Grads Struggle with Workplace Writing. (Hint: it’s not because they’re lazy. Or because they text.)

Xunantunich, Belize

Xunantunich, Belize

For the last five years, I’ve been teaching various equivalents of Business Writing, typically an upper-division writing course in which students from across various disciplines learn how to write job documents, reports, memos, emails, proposals, and the like. Business Writing is quite a useful class: as the New York Times reported in 2013, job candidates’ written and oral communication skills aren’t up to snuff. And, in 2016, the issue is still the same. (But, just so you know, “college students can’t write” has been a complaint of professors and professionals since the late 1800s.) 

College graduates—plain and simple—need better workplace writing skills.  And I’d go so far as to say it’s not entirely their fault if they don’t have them.  

Would it surprise you if I said that many sophomores, juniors, and seniors don’t know what genres and styles of writing they’ll be doing in their majors and fields? Would it also surprise you if I said that many professors and professionals are uncomfortable with teaching writing to their students or talking about writing with their employees and interns? 

This is something that I always kinda knew from my years in academia. But the realization really struck me when I recently assigned a group proposal to my Business Writing classes in which fifty students investigated writing in their fields. This six-week project was deliberately assigned as the first project of the semester because I wanted to start the semester with what I consider the most important content of my class: first, students need to learn how to research the kinds of writing styles and genres that are valued in their fields. Second, students need to learn how to adapt existing communication skills to the styles and genres required of them in their fields.   

As part of the project, students individually interviewed subject matter experts, researched what kinds of writing are valued in their fields, and then developed recommendations and strategies for how to improve upon writing instruction within their programs of study.

The eye-opening bit came after students interviewed their subject matter experts (who could include program directors, professors, or internship supervisors). I provided students with a template of interview questions which ranged from “Do you teach writing in your classes? Why or why not?” to “What kinds of writing genres or writing styles do you think students should learn while in college?” This interview wasn’t meant to judge the interviewees’ experiences or teaching practices; it was meant to enlighten students about their supervisors, mentors, and professors’ experiences with writing. Students need to know where their subject matter experts are coming from to better understand how writing is valued, discussed, and taught within their programs, professions, and industries.

Interestingly, students reported to me that their subject matter experts had either not been taught how to write for the industry—you know, the nuts and bolts of the writing process—or they were unsure of how to teach or talk about writing. It didn’t matter how many conference presentations they had given or how many years they had worked in the industry; they just didn’t know what to do when faced with student writing. Many subject matter experts even said that they didn’t think they were good writers, so they were hesitant to discuss writing in the classroom or in the workplace.

Based on what my students told me, here are four general observations:

1. Professionals aren’t often trained how to talk about the ways in which written communication functions in a particular industry.

2. Professionals may believe that students/employees learn through implicit instruction: that if people read enough examples, they will learn how to write.

3. Professionals might be lacking confidence. Because they weren’t taught how to write, they might believe they don’t know how to teach writing or talk about writing. (And they also might think their own writing is terrible.) 

4. Isn’t it the English department’s job to teach writing?

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. How do my colleagues and peers go from being expert communicators in their own fields to being unsure of how to apply that knowledge to the writing of their students and entry-level employees?

Well, two points here: first, just because someone gets a degree and/or is a teacher, doesn’t mean that person knows how to teach writing. And, second, writing instruction should be explicit. This means that professors and professionals need to be able to explain writing strategies, research methods, and task expectations to their students and entry-level employees. 

Perhaps I should return to point #4: isn’t it the English department’s job to teach writing? Maybe. Maybe not. But what I can tell you is that people don’t learn how to become top-notch writers or communicators with a few freshmen English classes and one Business Writing class. Writing is a process that must be continually practiced. Without that practice, the writing process becomes increasingly difficult. 

But back to my students. Over the course of six weeks, students realized that many professors and professionals need more support when it comes to talking about or teaching disciplinary-specific writing. And proposals included recommendations that ranged from developing field-specific writing courses to providing faculty with professional development opportunities. While I was hunkered down reading students’ proposals, I realized that I missed a huge opportunity with this assignment. I should have required students to submit their proposals to their interviewees and program directors, similarly to how unsolicited proposals work in the workplace. In effect, I fell into the same trap that my students had discovered: I failed to share with my across-campus colleagues recommendations that could help their students become better writers. 

I know my colleagues and peers are talented people. They know how to communicate. And they know what kinds of writing their students, interns, and entry-level employees will be doing in their industries. We just need to team up—professionals and writing specialists—to help make sure students are ready to write when they get on the job.   

Guess what I’m doing next semester. Yep. I’m going to require my Business Writers to submit their proposals to their program directors and whomever else they interviewed. Because these conversations need to happen. And it’s my obligation to make sure that they do. 


Let’s talk! What’s been your experiencing with writing in the workplace? Or what do you wish you knew about communication as a college student and entry-level employee? Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC and on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.